Guyan Weerasinghe, Director at VeterinaryCareers.com.au
Peri-urban farms, smallholder farms, hobby farming, absentee landholders, backyard beasts - the list goes on, yet the sentiment, challenges and opportunities remain the same.
What is the definition of these production systems? Some define smallholder lots as properties that are less than 10 acres, whilst other define them as properties carrying less than 50 head of stock.
In developed countries, these kinds of farmers have a range of motivations and can include folk who are seeking a patch of land to escape the suburbs, raise livestock like they used to in their country of origin, or seek to raise their own food including protein.
Yet, such farms also bring their own challenges from the perspective of a veterinarian.
In my first role as a mixed practitioner veterinarian, I once visited a farm to examine a "pig with a sore ear". At least that's what was written on the booking schedule. Noticeably missing from the schedule book was the minor detail of the pig being a hand-raised, feral sow. A hand-raised feral sow who was easily 40-60kg heavier than I was. Or that she had an immense dislike of strangers. Men, in particular. No, these details were relayed to me by the owners as I was stepping over the fence and handed a piece of poly pipe for protection. The initial 'meet and greet' went well, however things turned rather sour when I opted to go "best practice" and swab her ear for a cytological examination. No sooner had my ear swab gone into her ear, no amount of food distractions from the owners could stop her from turning around, knocking me to the ground and gnashing at my outstretched hand.
Pig 1:0 Guy
Whilst my pride was probably the most damaged from that little episode (followed closely by a quality gash on my palm, setting up another lifeline to befuddle any fortune tellers), it did teach me a valuable lesson about choosing my battles with diagnostic workups.
Usually, these stories are stored up for sharing with colleagues at conferences and after a couple of rounds of such tales (and beer) a common denominator starts to arise - we seem to have more of these horror stories when dealing with hobby farms than we do in larger production farms. From poor facilities, animals unaccustomed to handling, animal welfare concerns and a lack of basic husbandry practices - we've seen them all.
This is not to say that all hobby farms are work, health and safety minefields, however, there seems to be an anecdotal trend amongst many of my peers.
Knowledge of animal diseases and welfare is another aspect that is a challenge in peri-urban practice. Some smallholder farmers are quite clued up and have a great relationship with their local veterinarian to help investigate problems and help develop management programs. Yet is a proportion out there of smallholder farmers who won't call their veterinarian and leave the issue until the situation deteriorates. Much of my livestock work in the periurban sphere used to be dealing with welfare cases - emaciated livestock due to poor planning and nutrition. Furthermore, in certain urban sectors, the awareness of livestock health and diseases is diminishing due to expanding urban sprawl and fewer veterinarians electing to maintain a mixed-practice focus.
Another factor of concern is the practice of some smallholder farmers utilising online platforms such as Facebook or Gumtree. Many of the animals purchased through these systems may run the risk of spreading infectious animal diseases in a manner that is not traceable.
The Australian Veterinarians in Public Health (a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association) are seeking to promote an increased awareness amongst veterinary practitioners of programs and training that are currently available. Over the coming month, a number of events will be of interest to many veterinarians who deal with hobby/peri-urban/backyard-farmers.
- On the 18th of May, the AVPH will be hosting a webinar from 7-8pm (Australian Eastern Time) on the subject of Australian smallholders and biosecurity. Featuring Dr Kevin Doyle and Dr Marta Hernandez-Jover, participants will get up to speed with 'the state of the nation' on how smallholders fit into the larger national biosecurity system. Current research will also be shared with the motivations and influences within this sector of farming.
- On the 9th of June, AVPH in collaboration with Agriculture Victoria, DPI NSW, 3M, CSU and the Mackinnon project (University of Melbourne) will be hosting a one-day practical workshop to help make practitioner in the peri-urban sphere feel more comfortable with working with smallholder farmers - from subjects about notifiable diseases, suitable PPE and practical on-farm skills. Presentation topics and workshop activities are captured on the image below:
This is, by no means, a definitive list of all the opportunities available out there, but it should serve as a handy stepping stone for any practitioner who'd like to brush up on their smallholder know-how and feel more confident whenever they step onto a hobby farm.
- This workshop will follow the national AVA conference that will be held between the 4-9th of June in Melbourne. Registration for the workshop can be accessed via the conference registration page
- The NSW Department of Primary Industries is hosting a free e-learning training course for veterinarians who deal with hobby farmers and backyard livestock. This was a collaborative effort with Animal Health Australia and the Australian Veterinary Association. Australian veterinarians are welcome to sign up and take part in this 2-hour online course and earn 2 CPD points in the process. Further details can be found on the DPI NSW Greater Sydney Peri-Urban Biosecurity Program website.