Opinion: Live export industry depends on accurate cattle pregnancy diagnosis

Dr Enoch Bergman, President, Australian Cattle Vets Association, 21/02/2015
ACVA President Dr Enoch Bergman

ACVA President Dr Enoch Bergman

President of the Australian Cattle Veterinarians Association, Dr Enoch Bergman offers a counter-point to recent comments about layman pregnancy testing and its impact on the live export industry   









IN RESPONSE to the article by Bim Struss, Agforce cattle president, I’d like to counter that neither the live export industry’s interests nor the interests of commercial cattlemen will be well served by proposing to change the regulations in Queensland in relation to cattle pregnancy diagnosis.

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is concerned about the welfare of exported cattle being exported overseas as well as the obvious risks to the sustainability of the industry if the current legislation is modified to allow pregnancy diagnosis to be carried out by non-vets on a fee for service basis in Queensland.

Based on what we’ve seen in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, we believe lay operator accreditation schemes don’t work well at all, and are of very little tangible benefit to producers, exporters, or the consumers of our products.

There are more than 100 non veterinarian lay operators working in the Northern Territory.  The West Australian situation is markedly different, wherein lay operators are required to work under the direction of a licensed veterinarian that the state veterinary surgeon’s board has deemed acceptable.  Only a half dozen lay operators work in WA.


‘Re-testing’ for pregnancy represents considerable waste

The NT pregnancy diagnosis scheme, on which the WA scheme is predicated, allows someone who is not a veterinarian to gain accreditation by simply diagnosing the pregnancy status of ten animals correctly after a short training program lasting less than half of a week.

We believe this is indefensible in ensuring the accuracy of the test result – a result on which a significant number of producers and our industry could well depend.

A number of exporters have been requesting that significant numbers of animals in both states are preg tested again at export facilities in instances wherein they have had concerns regarding the accuracy of the accredited preg tester that had certified them as empty.

Pregnancy diagnosis does carry some risk of harm or even death if not performed correctly, especially in regard to the use of rigid ultrasounds in poor facilities. A number of lay persons utilize ultrasounds for export work, even though ultrasounds have been well documented within Australia to have poorer sensitivity than skilled manual palpation, resulting in a higher proportion of missed pregnancies.

Missed pregnancies could put the industry under serious negative scrutiny when pregnant cattle are mistakenly exported, or worse calve on boats. This amounts to not only a significant animal welfare issue, but also a risk to the credibility of our industry in the eyes of our trading partners.

It is possible that we will one day suffer a major issue resulting from pregnant cattle being sent to a sensitive market, potentially resulting in a major disruption to trade.

Scenarios such as the situation when pregnant cattle mistakenly left Australia for Mauritius in late 2012, have the potential to result in a major disruption of trade, especially if our schemes are found to be inconsistent or inappropriate.


The case for a strong, well resourced veterinary sector


The Australian Cattle Veterinarians is a Special Interest Group (SIG) of the AVA.  One of the largest SIG’s it is comprised of over 1100 passionate veterinarians dedicated to serving Australia’s diverse cattle industries.

The ethic of our members is to improve the profitability of the producers we serve, without sacrificing animal welfare outcomes.  Cattle producers benefit directly from many of our veterinary interventions.  More importantly, the entire industry, the consumers of the beef and dairy products they produce, and the export industry, benefit immensely, from our indirect surveillance.  Vets actively surveil for and manage diseases that can affect our consumers, or our ability to export live or processed product.

Rural veterinary services are underpinned by “routine veterinary procedures” such as pregnancy diagnosis.  The Frawley report had reported a shortage of access to veterinary services in rural areas over a decade ago.  The veterinary industry responded by creating three new veterinary educational facilities, with greater focus on generating keen young veterinarians wishing to practice within the rural sector, and nearly doubling the number of veterinarians graduating annually in Australia.

Producers are on the cusp of enjoying the benefits of greater access and engagement with an army of keen young vets hoping to dedicate the balance of their adult lives to serving rural livestock and those that rear them.  This equates to better welfare outcomes, better surveillance for disease, faster and more relevant response to emergency disease situations, and safer agricultural products.  It also means greater access to a reliable and relevant vet when producers are in need of one!

The Australian Cattle Vets are actively involved in addressing the challenges faced by the live export industry.  We believe that any initiatives to reduce veterinary input will further compromise welfare and competency standards, complicating the challenges we and the export industry face.

This argument is not about addressing concerns that the veterinary industry is unsustainably expensive, it is driven by a goal of simplifying the process of getting female cattle on boats.  Simplifying the process should not compromise the credibility of our industry.

The export industry is critical to improving human welfare outcomes overseas, in ensuring the sustainability of the Australian beef industry, in employing tens of thousands of Australians, and whilst we are engaged, we can maximize welfare outcomes.  Strong animal welfare and biosecurity credentials will ultimately stand the industry in good stead and vets are crucial partners with industry in achieving these credentials.  Honestly, I believe and sleep better at night believing that the veterinary industry is a guardian and friend to the Australian beef industry.  We are here to help.




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  1. Rick Briton, 21/03/2015

    I agree with Steve Jones, layman preg test til the cows come but if they go on a boat they need to be tested by Vet and certified. Taking the life blood of Northern Australia. Keep it professional that way we stay in the market. No short term gain for potential long term jeopardy.

  2. Steven Jones, 03/03/2015

    This shouldn’t be an ‘us vs them’ situation. Vets that work in rural areas are wanting to provide a service to graziers, and are quite often graziers themselves. what I ask John, Russell and Wayne is – How do you know you are proficient and ‘better’ than most vets around? Has anyone checked or tested your diagnosis? Empty vs pregnant is easy ONCE you’re proficient. lets be honest. Gestational ageing is a different story- Unless you’ve preg tested with service dates at some stage of your time, you don’t really know how accurate you are. I have been asked by a grazier to check him (he wasn’t blinded in thinking he’s got preg testing down pat despite thinking he’d been proficient for 35 years) and was quite surprised and disappointed in himself when he was calling 3 month pregnancies empty. This is why we don’t need just anyone checking cattle for export. I’m all for graziers doing their own- as long as there is an accreditation process. It seems to be a lot of chest beating – prove you’re proficient by passing a test

  3. Wayne Daley, 24/02/2015

    The facts of the matter are;
    * You do not need a degree in Vet Science to be proficient in pregnancy testing cattle.
    * A degree in Vet science does not ensure that you will be proficient in Pregnancy testing cattle.
    *Vets who are proficient in pregnancy testing need not be threatened by the removal of the ‘Vet only’ legislation.
    *Export cattle are required to be ‘Signed off’ by the pregnancy testing practitioner and to provide their export accreditation number, this process does provide traceability and disqualification.

    The situation in NT has allowed me to develop and concentrate my efforts on delivering to the cattle breeders / export cattle of the Barkly Region of the NT, a professional Ultrasound pregnancy testing contracting business. I now have 3 highly qualified Ultrasound Technicians plus a trainee. Our sole focus is on accuracy in our determinations [which is possible via a highly qualified ultrasound technician].
    I have been asked to deliver the same service to some of the cattle breeders in remote areas of NW QLD …I have been confronted with the situation whereby cattle producers can not access [at a particular time], the services of a Vet. Worse still, when the producer has cattle that require to be tested for export, is it not reasonable that the Vet Board provide clemency to my firm in these situations?
    *Technology and knowledge has long surpassed this restrictive legislation.

  4. Dr Enoch Bergman, 23/02/2015

    Hello readers and commenters,

    It was not my intent to offend or insult anyone. My job is supporting producers and the livestock they raise. There are definitely accurate laypersons operating within the NT and WA. There are definitely laypersons that are more accurate than the average vet, and likely even some lay persons as accurate as the best vets. The issue is how to regulate those that aren’t so that they don’t put all of us at risk. Simply put, the processes that exist in the NT to accredit persons to be able to sign export certificates lack the ability to ensure that the right people are allowed to do the job. The reality is that a significant number of cattle are being pregnancy tested again at export holding yards, both in WA and the NT evidencing that the system is inadequate at best. The NT is distinctly different from QLD, let’s really think about what we believe we have to gain by trying to fix a system that isn’t broken.

    Pregnancy diagnosis has been and may well remain, an act of veterinary science in Qld for legitimate reasons. The industry, the consumers, our export partners, and the veterinary industry have all acknowledged the key role that veterinarians play in both looking after Australian livestock and the producers that own them. Quite simply put, cattle need veterinary services, hence producers need access to a veterinarian, and the conversation usually starts in the cattle yards performing exactly the sort of procedure we are discussing… pregnancy diagnosis. I have pregnancy tested hundreds of thousands of cattle myself, many destined for export. This alone does not separate me from lay persons, some that would have pregnancy tested more, and there are many that are as accurate, however, in my patch, I know all of my producers that I pregnancy test for, know what drives their production system, visit their farms at least annually, and should the proverbial hit the fan, I am here for them. If I were to make errors that would compromise my clients or the greater industry, the WA Vet Surgeon’s board can revoke my license to practice any form of veterinary medicine! Pregnancy diagnosis underpins access to veterinary services in the bush. In this sense, vets are not competing with lay persons, we are offering a completely different service… I have often urged good lay people to consider pursuing a veterinary degree, I honestly feel it would create greater opportunities both for them and their clients and help to improve access to veterinary services in the bush.

    The accuracy of individual operators for domestic pregnancy testing influences producers in selecting an appropriate operator. Most producers that utilize veterinarians recognize most of the less obvious advantages of their choice, regardless, it is left to the producer to decide. Ultimately, their choice primarily affects their own profitability. Currently, export work isn’t perceived as impacting the producer directly, however, in reality it could affect the entire industry. I believe it is imperative that we develop strategies to ensure that our export pregnancy diagnosis schemes are at least defensible if not as water tight as possible. Processes exist to review and reprimand veterinarians under the bodies that currently regulate pregnancy diagnosis, ie. the state Vet Surgeon Boards. Vets risk losing their livelihood…

    I am not advocating changing the regulations in the NT. The registration procession WA for lay operators requires they are under the direction of a vet. The export industry in Qld has been well serviced by veterinarians in Qld, I have to ask the readers, who is chasing change and why? A number of lay operators are currently pregnancy testing on farm in Qld for fee for service, (arguably illegally) but they can’t sign export certificates. Most QLD vets charge less than $3 per head for export jobs… in the context of the other fees associated with marketing cattle for export cost isn’t truly an issue… I recognise that allowing anyone to pregnancy test will make organising someone simpler… Simplifying the process for the benefit of a few operators, if it puts all of us at greater risk doesn’t sound like good sense or good business to me.

  5. John Bethel, 23/02/2015

    Nothing like a vet looking after their own little patch eh. There are literally hundreds of cattlemen throughout Australia who would run rings around the average vet when it comes to preg testing and they don’t charge an arm and a leg to do it like the vets do! I personally have preg tested thousands of cows in my lifetime and I think it is a total rort and an insult that my skills aren’t recognised in the State of Queensland when it comes to live export! My son works in the Northern Territory and he can preg test boat cattle in the NT but I can’t in Queensland! He has been preg testing for about three years and is very proficient and sensibly his skills are recognised in the NT. I have been preg testing large numbers for twenty six years yet in this State I am considered an unreliable ameture! There are hundreds like me in this State and it is time our skills are recognised and the vets cosy little rort given a mighty shake up!

  6. Russell Lethbridge, 22/02/2015

    Your generalization on this topic I find quite disturbing and down right insulting. To imply that all lay preg-testers are incompetent and possibly cause animal safety issues leaves me with no doubt that you are so out of touch that you and your organization really need a lesson in the real cattle industry of north Australia. I am a cattleman that has been preg-testing for 35 years in my own herd and assure you that my competency level is much higher than a lot of ticketed vets getting around. From personal experience recently having a vet preg-test boat heifers, 15% false diagnosis is certainly not acceptable. There are a lot of producers out there with many many years of experience that I would back against any vet to get the correct diagnosis. So I don’t become guilty of generalising, there are a few vets in the north that do a wonderful job and serve the industry at an extremely high level. However, when a 15,000 head ship is due out of Townsville and Darwin in the same week, coming from multiple properties all across the north, it is unreasonable to think there are enough vets to cover this work load. I am not, for one minute, suggesting we compromise our live ex markets to enable lay preg-testers to certify preg status, stringent control and regulation must always be at the fore.

  7. william bareber, 21/02/2015

    not difficult to palpate for advanced fetuses, then just lute the empties when loading on boat, stress will get most. anyone with a minimum of experience in preging will tell you not 100% accurate. when cows dear have seen cows pregged twice by different vets and still miss breds, and they are very capable. big lot that feeds cows always has poddy calves for sale, just the way they lay in there. the doctor has a point though, seen teacher at college in qld. teach students to palpate right handed. he now lives in n.t. you never leave an empty home, breds go on boat.

  8. Mark Clifford, 21/02/2015

    The best preg-tester and speyer I have used in 20 years of managing large breeder herds in the NT is a “layman” preg tester. Come to think of it so are the next 2 most efficient.
    I agree the quickie courses and accreditation are a real cause for concern but I am afraid you are way off the mark with the other generalisations.

  9. Tom Stockwell, 21/02/2015

    What the Dickens Enoch? I know blow- all about the veterinary profession in the wonderful state of Qld., and am heartily reassured by your description of professional veterinary ethics and commitment to the industry, but you know even less about the role, necessity and efficacy of the lay preg-testing fraternity servicing the live export trade in the NT. Using fairy stories and misleading statistics about the NT situation might lead a more cynical and small-minded person (than myself) to interpret your case as veterinary purse protection. You just keep looking after the Qld industry old son and we’ll battle on in the NT eh!.

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