Lay pregnancy testing: Undermining viability of vets risks herd biosecurity and productivity

James Nason, 13/12/2018

Allowing fee-for-service pregnancy-testers to take a key component of the work that underpins the viability of rural Queensland veterinary practices could have serious ramifications for future herd biosecurity, health and productivity in the State, the head of the Australian Cattle Veterinarians Association has warned.

Dr Alan Guilfoyle

The Queensland Government is taking submissions until tomorrow on proposed changes to State legislation that would allow pregnancy testing of cattle in Queensland by non-veterinarians, as is the practice in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Queensland cattle producers through AgForce have argued that being forced to rely on a limited number of veterinarians is restrictive, expensive and impractical and places them at a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts in the NT and WA.

AgForce Cattle President Will Wilson last week said current legislation is outdated. Allowing trained and accredited operators to pregnancy test cattle would encourage more producers to undertake pregnancy testing, which would benefit future herd management, productivity and profitability, he said.

Mr Wilson added that vets already operate in a market alongside an “underground” of laypersons providing pregnancy testing, and there was no evidence this had reduced vets’ business.

However, Australian Cattle Veterinarians Association president Dr Alan Guilfoyle, who operates a large private veterinary practice at Clermont in Central Queensland, said it was hard to imagine how the move would not undermine the sustainability of existing veterinary businesses which currently service remote cattle regions.

As a sparsely populated area surrounded by a large and exposed coastline, northern Queensland was a potential biosecurity nightmare, he said. The valuable role of ‘passive surveillance’ played by professional veterinarians as they visited properties throughout the region should not be discounted, he warned.

“We have got to wake up that we really need that passive surveillance and that important layer of security,” Dr Guilfoyle told Beef Central.

“The only way you are going to get that is if you have practice sustainability. It’s a term I am loathe to use because people say you are only feathering your own nest and trying to make a quid.

“Well, if you want to survive in any industry you have got to make a quid.

“The private sector has to be viable, if you want services it is going to come from the private sector, it has to be viable, it has to be sustainable.”

Dr Guilfoyle is working to educate people on the unseen value that professional veterinarians provide to the industry, and the value of having close working relationships between producers and veterinarians.

He said he agreed with AgForce’ push for more producers to undertake pregnancy testing, but added that there was “nothing in this whole argument from the veterinary profession that would stop producers from learning to do their own cattle in-house”.

“It is when you have quasi-professionals going out and charging fee for service that is the issue.

“When veterinarians go on property we value add, we give a lot of service away, and we are picking up on biosecurity and in-herd health all the time.

“The further you go north the national biosecurity is a major, major issue and having that veterinary presence is very important. It is not just exotic diseases, a vet can walk into a herd and see disease like pesti or reproductive diseases people mightn’t know were there at all.

“There is a lot of value in having a vet on farm.”

Dr Guilfoyle said the value of pregnancy testing could not be underestimated in terms of the benefits that removing empty breeders provided for grass management, herd fertility, productivity and business profitability. One colleague in the Northern Territory had helped a producer reduce the number of breeders from 15,000 to 10,000 through pregnancy testing while still managing to maintain the same level of production.

The ‘Preg Check’ accreditation scheme held veterinarians conducting pregnancy testing to very rigid standards, he said, with the threat of loss of accreditation or sanctions from the Veterinarian Surgeons board if those standards were not met.

Dr Guilfoyle said poor pregnancy testing outcomes can lead to poor animal welfare outcomes at a time when there were more eyes than ever before on welfare standards in the livestock sector.

“For market integrity and certification at point of delivery it must remain in the hands of professionals.”



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  1. Eion John McAllister, 17/12/2018

    Advances in technology will make this easier and easier to occur for producers. Rectal palpation is only one methodology available and certainly those who do a lot of this can be accurate in assessing the level of development of a foetus. For many producers its simply enough to know if the cow is pregnant or not . If you want to replace empty cows with breeders that are at a similar stage of pregnancy to those remaining in your herd then you go to the market wanting animals that will meet your specific requirements and will seek to source incalf breeders that suit. You must be prepared to pay a premium for this information and you might need the services of a vet for this level of accuracy. For simply wanting to know if your cow is pregnant or not requires a lot lower level of skill. Being trained in Rectal Palpation provides a means to achieve this end and provided one is happy to accept the accuracy limitations and risks of this methodology then that is fine. Pregnancy identification beyond 3 months is not very difficult to identify if you simply want to know if the cow is pregnant. An alternative accurate methodology to easily test a breeder’s pregnancy status is a blood test which can easily be administered by any producer with a basic farm skillset. Post it away and you get the results back by email and it is able to tell you down to a month’s gestation. Earlier than any other test procedures and virtually none of the risks of abortion of early age foetuses which are inherent in invasive methods. It is reasonable in cost, manageable with the same sort of farm facilities and consists of easily followed steps that don’t require anything more than common sense. Ultra sound technologies also exist which while being a bit on the expensive side for small producers are well within the financial gambit for bigger operators. I seem to remember a relatively recent Beef Central story re the utilisation of ultrasound preg testing being utilised extensively by the Camm feedlot businesses to screen feeder heifers. Having seen this sort of technology in operation and with the added advantage of being able to store digital images for later reference it has very user friendly elements and significant potential for herd management. One thing that we all know is that technology gets smaller and more powerful and more capable over time. The current dialogue about requiring specifically trained and accredited testers will become irrelevant as refinement of ultrasound and hormone identifying technology develops further. It’s here now in competitive formats to the costs of veterinary service providers. It will evolve and become much more competitive and accurate in what it can do and in the information it can provide to producers and how they are able to utilise it in their operations. I took the steps to become trained in utilisation of AI and Preg testing for my own requirements. It didn’t cost the earth and has enabled me to manage my requirements effectively. However having been issued a nationally accredited vocational education competency for this, I am unable to have my skills utilised for profit. It’s like having a truck licence and not being able to be employed as a truck driver. I can travel over the border and operate to my heart’s content if I was to choose to do so. Seems a bit of a contradiction to me, especially in the light of the current availability of alternative technology based methods which give user friendly, highly accurate, earlier stage results at manageable costs. Encouraging pregnancy testing by producers is a good thing, but making it out to be something which is a requirement for some high brow accreditation program is really flying in the face of the trends that are afoot. I would not be surprised to hear of the future availability of a wifi or bluetooth linked technology that scans blood hormone levels or ultrasound scans with your phone. After all we have a widely used blood sugar measuring capability for diabetics that is able to be managed effectively by primary school aged children.

  2. Bim Struss, 16/12/2018

    I have every respect for Alan Guilfoyle and the Veterinary fraternity. Veterinarians throughout Queensland provide a remarkable and very important service to our Industry. I applaud and congratulate Vets on the work they do.
    Just for the record, I am proud to say we use the Roma Veterinary Clinic for all our pregnancy testing and herd health monitoring because Will Nason and Tim McClymont provide an exceptional and reasonably priced service.
    The push by AgForce to develop a highly trained pool of efficient lay pregnancy technicians is all about increasing profitability for the Queensland breeder herd. The best way to increase profitability is to increase productivity and the best way to increase productivity is to pregnancy test the breeders and strategically market the non performers.
    If the majority of Queensland beef producers adopted the practise of pregnancy testing their breeders, the present number of Vets would not be able to handle the load. Accrediting a pool of highly trained efficient Lay persons will help fill the void where Vets do not operate or their service is cost prohibitive because of travel.
    Having been apart of he AgForce team when the Lay pregnancy testing scheme was proposed by our members, I know AgForce is willing to work in conjunction with the AVA to develop a high level sustainable system to accredit lay persons based on the principles established in the Vets PREgCHECK programme.
    I am sure Guillie will support me when I say, if every area had a Veterinary Clinic like Clermont and Roma (and I am sure there are others equally as good) the push for the lay pregnancy accreditation would not be there.

  3. Callum Bettington, 14/12/2018

    Understand what Alan is saying here. It’s not just about the ability to determine if a cow is pregnant or not. It’s also the vet tries to improve your in calf rate. If you’ve got poor results what could be causing that. If the results are good, ways you can still make it better.

  4. Paul Franks, 14/12/2018

    Lets be realistic and who here seriously thinks a five year university degree is absolutely required to pregnancy test cattle? That is what it boils down to here. The law is requiring an overkill of educational qualifications. There may be other benefits of a veterinarian to do it, but they are secondary to the actual job itself, in fact after the BJD debacle, I could imagine some producers would not want too much scrutiny of their herd.

  5. John Gunthorpe, 14/12/2018

    Vets do provide benefits to the cattle producer when they visit for preg testing. No doubt they also perform community and industry service as they inspect the environment and herds while visiting stations for preg testing. However, we should not discount the same service provided by cattle producers who are also aware of bio security and environmental issues surrounding their properties.
    Anyway, we all now have bio security plans as good LPA accredited producers, and will soon be inspected by the boffins from Integrity Systems. So we are fully protected from bio security problems and our vets can rest easy (as if??). If there is a need for this work by our vets, then we should press government to provide more government vets to do this work and not rely on well intended commercial vets to monitor the health of our industry.
    Some vets were major financial beneficiaries from the fiasco that was BJD. As producers struggled to understand the nature of BJD (it was Queensland’s Chief Veterinary Officer who signed the quarantine notices to suspect BJD PICs), they paid vets to test their herds and provide advice. Over 20,000 tests were performed without discovering any case of BJD being passed on from the index herds.
    The better vets ignored the notification requirements for the disease and advised the producer to slaughter and bury their animal with suspected BJD and take no further action. This particularly happened in southern Australia with ovine and bovine Johne’s disease. The vet was aware of the financially crippling result of being found to be suspect JD and acted to protect their client. Time has taught us that this was the right course of action and those vets need to thanked again and again by their clients. A bottle of single malt would not go astray if you were a producer who benefited from this act of kindness.
    Preg testing is an important source of revenue for our vets. However, if we accept free market principles, then we cannot agree this work should be sacrosanct to the vet profession. Scanning equipment today lifts the reliability of identifying a fetus and as with other service providers it should be “buyer beware”.
    Vets will continue to offer the service and those trusted by their clients will continue to contract the work. Identifying cows to be culled is critical to the success of a producer. Using cheap and unknown testers will weaken a business and lead to financial losses. Accrediting and registering testers is one way to be sure reputations are visible but there is a cost.
    Australian Cattle Industry Council

  6. Wallace Gunthorpe, 13/12/2018

    AgForce went close to putting 240 Queensland beef producers out of business with unnessary quarantines for suspected Johnes disease by supporting the protected zone policy because they said bio security was at risk,now the livelihood of the very people that help us ensure good bio security are being put at risk by AgForce policy! We should be supporting our Vets so that their businesses are viable to provide all the other services that we benefit from! I have seen the results of some Lay preg testers and it can be nothing short of a disaster.
    Why does AgForce think the beef industry is only about producers and not inclusive of all the support businesses that serve our industry?
    As a long time preg tester of my own herd and somebody that has known Dr Allan Guilfoyle for 43 years AgForce would be wise to listen to his advice!

  7. Sandra Jephcott, 13/12/2018

    I agree totally with Dr Guilfoyle. Vets provide a quality service and provide vital biosecurity at a time when the Queensland government has dramatically wound back veterinarians on staff in rural towns. If pregnancy testing allows veterinarians to be viable enough to employ more staff, they will provide pregnancy testing, bull testing and other vital services to the community including those living in rural towns with cats, dogs, horses etc

  8. Luke Armitage, 13/12/2018

    Customers decide – without them vets won’t exist. Buyers decide who’s preg test they will accept and cattle owners decide who is the most accurate. Vet or not

  9. GRAHAM NEILSEN, 13/12/2018

    i don’t agree. people who do preg. testing are very aware of animal health.
    Some vets do very little preg. testing and are not up to the standard of lay preg. testers that i have meet.

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