It is no secret that health care is expensive. If you have animals of any kind, then you know that this fact is not limited to health care for humans, as a visit to or from a veterinarian can cost a lot of money.
For homesteaders operating on a shoestring budget, an unplanned livestock vet visit—or even a planned one—can be an undue burden on the finances. The price of treating animals not only can increase the overall cost of meat and dairy, but also can take earmarked money away from crucial projects elsewhere on the farmstead.
While it is unlikely that any farmer can completely avoid veterinary expenditures, the good news is that there are steps which can help mitigate them. Most of these cost-control methods are inexpensive or even free, and are simple to implement.
1. Prevention is key. The best way to avoid paying medical costs is to avoid incurring sickness and injuries. Watch out for broken fences, protruding hardware, and rickety milk stands. Keep adversarial animals separated. Ensure feed quality and maintain sanitation. Use prevention techniques such as practicing diligent biosecurity, testing for communicable diseases, and quarantining questionable animals. It is always easier and cheaper to keep animals safe and healthy than it is to treat them after they become ill or get hurt.
2. Develop a network of like-minded livestock owners. Build a community of neighbors, relatives and fellow homesteaders. Include the people who sold your animals to you. There are often also breed clubs and show groups. Don’t be shy about asking at the feed or farm store—many workers there have a lot of experience with livestock.
Look for online resources, such as trusted go-to websites which are recommended by others. Also, try public resources such as your state’s cooperative extension or universities.
Social media is a great connection, too. I belong to several different regional groups—one strictly for goats, another for general livestock, and a third for farming and homesteading. I also follow national groups that are specific to my breed of goat. All of these offer a wealth of information, education and advice.
If you can ask someone in your network, they might be able to help you monitor and treat the animal on your own instead of paying for treatment. If nothing else, they may be able to rule out a few possibilities up front.
It pays to know when to contact your veterinarian early instead of waiting until things get worse, and a network can help you make that call. I once described my goat’s eye symptoms to a local farmer and she urged me to call the vet immediately—it sounded like pinkeye and the animal could lose the eye if not treated quickly. I followed her advice, and was glad I did.
3. Barter for services (once you have your network in place and have built mutual trust). Dairy goat owners in my area are always ready to help with disbudding, offer advice about parasite prevention, and even show up at two in the morning to assist with a difficult birth—and they expect the same in return.
I’ve driven 15 miles in a snowstorm to help with a friend’s injured goat, and spent an hour on social media walking a stranger through the process of shipping blood test samples off to a laboratory. On the other end of things, I’ve had a dairy farmer drop what he was doing to help me save a dying calf, and a friend diagnose a case of shipping fever on the phone and advise me what to do next.
4. Keep medications and supplies on hand. Having things like bloat relief, blood stop powder, antibiotics and thermometers in your home supply kit will help you deal with emergencies as they arise. If your livestock network gives you solid treatment advice, you need the supplies to follow through. Consider, too, that crises often strike at the worst possible times—on Christmas morning, or in the wee hours during a hurricane. Livestock veterinarians show up anytime, but after-hours care typically comes at a premium. Even if you administer only enough medication and care to tide the animal over to office hours, you can save a bundle.
When you hear of another homesteader wrestling with an animal emergency, take stock of your own supplies that might be helpful and make the offer. In return, they might have what you need someday. I’ve loaned out my microscope and fecal float supplies to a local sheep farm scrambling to control disease, and when one of my goats had a dangerously low temperature, my shepherd friends were quick to suggest and deliver a warm thick coat.
5. Do a lot of procedures yourself. You can learn to administer shots, trim hooves, apply topical medication, neuter, disbud, draw blood, and examine fecal samples. The thought of doing all of that might be intimidating, but not to worry. Acquire the necessary skills for treatments like you would anything else—one step at a time. Learn the easiest thing first, ask people in your network to help with a few others, and call the veterinarian for the rest.
Pick up additional skills by tagging along with people in your network, signing up for classes and demonstrations at fairs and agricultural events, volunteering or apprenticing, and consulting your cooperative extension experts.
6. Know your animals. Not all individuals behave like the textbooks say they will. For example, self-isolating behavior in goats is usually a signal that something is wrong. However, I once had a goat that was just naturally stand-offish and would routinely stand with her face in the corner for no reason. A vet who was on site for other reasons noticed the goat’s behavior and asked about her. Because I knew what was normal for that goat, I was able to assure the veterinarian that it was nothing out of the ordinary. Conversely, an animal might display behavior characteristic of its species or breed but atypical for that individual, alerting you to keep an eye on it.
7. When you do have to call the vet, be ready. Before you make that first call, be prepared with the answers to the questions they are likely to ask. Take the animal’s temperature, notice if it’s eating and drinking and eliminating normally, and have a list of what medications and procedures have already been given. This will make the vet’s job easier, and he or she might be able to give you advice over the phone instead of seeing the animal – thus saving you money.
If the animal does have to be seen, make sure it is ready when the veterinarian arrives. I am always astounded at the television reality show where the vet shows up and has to chase a cow around the pasture before he can treat it. In my region they charge by the minute, and the clock starts ticking the minute they pull into the driveway. I always have the animal caught up, penned, or crated ahead of time.
I expect that most veterinarians do not want to waste your money or their time any more than you do. It has been my experience that they appreciate having clients who are knowledgeable and capable, with whom they can work as a team and trust to follow instructions.
By following these guidelines, you can develop a good working rapport with your veterinarian, ensure that your animals receive excellent attention, and keep your homesteading operation running smoothly. And best of all, in a world where many costs are skyrocketing, you can save money on health care for your animals.
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