Why we love being country vets – Walwa Veterinary Practice

Dave Hall, Richard Sanders and Lauren Tyrell are the vets at Walwa Veterinary Practice in rural Victoria. Here’s why they love being country vets and celebrate the highs and lows of rural practice.

Dave’s story

In 1991, I established Walwa Veterinary Practice, at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. Walwa is a township of approximately 100, in mainly beef breeding. We deal with all animals including beef and dairy cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, alpacas, bison, pocket pets and reptiles.

I was the only vet in my single-vet practice, with various periods of assistant employment, until 2010, when Richard Sanders came as a new graduate from Charles Sturt University (CSU). In 2011, we’d become busy enough to employ a second CSU graduate, Lauren Tyrell, and a full-time veterinary nurse and receptionist, Renata Stewart. Practice manager, Suzie Vinge, has been in charge for 10 years.

So, within 20 years, in a town of 100 people, the practice now supports five full-time staff and is the town’s second largest employer.

The practice covers a radius of about 80km, through mountains, valleys, creeks and rivers, and is in sight of the Kosciuszko main range. Our main clientele are beef cattle breeders, who mostly Spring calve, as well as a variety of horse owners.

Animals have always been in my life. In this job, I get to be with them every day, and work with people who have a similar affinity. Country practice is about service to a community which relies on animals for its survival.

We try to perform all the procedures that clients expect, so one can be outside one’s comfort zone at times. Mixed rural practice provides physical, mental and technical challenges. There just isn’t room for complacency, boredom or smugness.

Owners are generally happy to see the country vet, as there is often a problem to be fixed, or enterprise efficiency procedure requiring professional assistance.

Apart from the practice ownership, my outside interests are animal health development in East Timor, and horse management in Indigenous communities. I’ve been involved with East Timor since 2001, following Steve Dunn’s call for assistance. I’m presently planning my sixth trip in June. I’ve hosted two Timorese vets, and one trainee animal health assistant at the practice and I have almost daily contact with Timor.

Last year, with Ray Barnett from Grafton, I went to Palm Island to work with the Palm Island Aboriginal Council on a pilot horse management program. We yarded, gelded and branded horses which wander through the town. I’ve since been back to Palm Island and am planning to go again this year. I also made a reconnaissance trip to three Far North Queensland communities with horse issues.

In 2007, I rolled my vehicle, and fractured my neck at C3. The vertebra split longitudinally through the canal and body, and dislocated anteriorly at the intervertebral disc. I spent two months in hospital, in traction, with a ring bolted to my forehead tied to a cord over a pulley. I stayed flat on my back for the entire time, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’d lost 16kg by the time I stood up again. I spent a further six weeks in a halo-thoracic device, then to a hard collar, and finally, a soft one. All in all, I was out of action for four months. I was working as a solo-vet practice at that time. Fortunately, two colleagues came to the rescue, and kept the practice running. Suzie took on the responsibility of running the show, and Walwa Vet Practice survived.

The accident was possibly the greatest defining experience of my life. I still feel that I’m living a bonus life. I have immense gratitude for the life I’m able to continue with.

We take a lot of CSU veterinary students at Walwa. We’re very fortunate to be within a day’s travel for the first and second year students. We also have students in the latter years on longer placements and Sydney students on their rural rotation. Students are a refreshing addition to the practice. It’s encouraging to see so many keen to adopt the lifestyle of the country vet.

It’s interesting, in this era of whole herd health and consultancy, that so many students enjoy the excitement and challenges of clinical large animal work. There is a huge farmer demand for attention to individual cases. It’s important not to price oneself out of a job. These are the jobs which get the vet on-farm, and through conversation, other work may emerge. Apart from which they provide satisfaction. There’s no joy like getting in the vehicle to leave after dealing with an emphysematous foetotomy!

Our role in strengthening Australia’s biosecurity is probably the most important, but unseen, aspect of the rural veterinarian’s presence. If we make ourselves available, and remain economically accessible to farmers, we’re at the frontline of exotic disease awareness, as well as monitoring emerging diseases.

We have a great relationship with our Department of Primary Industries and Livestock, Health and Pest Authorities colleagues, who are just as committed in their rural veterinary role.

I love country practice for the variety, in both caseload and the enterprises themselves. There is no homogeny. I have terrific respect for the farming community of the Upper Murray. They really care for their animals. It’s not all about money for them – it’s the lifestyle and constant challenge of dealing with so many variables – weather, seasons, markets, animal health, breakdowns, and accidents. It’s a warm and wonderful feeling to be such a valued member of the community.

There was a time, a decade ago; when we felt that there would be no future for small country practices: they were burn-out lifestyles, and there was little chance of succession. Only multi-vet practices in large regional cities would survive. This outlook has changed since the establishment of production animal focussed veterinary schools like CSU and James Cook University. We have a keen younger generation that are as happy working at the back end of a cow or mare as they are squeezing anal glands. Many grew up in the bush, and city life holds no attraction.

It’s a secure feeling having Richard and Lauren with me at Walwa Veterinary Practice, knowing they’re already infected with the same bug that I caught when I started out. My youngest daughter, Eve, has also chosen the country vet lifestyle, and has just commenced her fourth year at CSU.

My ideal would be lots of small vet practices servicing every farm on the continent. If the five of us can make a happy living in a remote rural area, from a town of 100 people, without charging heaps, then anyone can.

Richard’s story

I have always had a love for animals and knew I would end up in a career that involved animals in some way.

Growing up, I regularly visited friends and relatives on properties from Yass to Coonamble, so it was no surprise to my parents that I took a gap year between high school and university to go and work as a jackaroo on 10,000 acres near Yass. In 2003, after living and breathing the livestock side of life for 12 months I decided to study a Bachelor of Agriculture at CSU with a major in animal production. A year into my study there was talk of starting a vet school at CSU the following year. I was fortunate enough to be accepted and I started studying veterinary science in 2005.

During the five and a half year course I was able to see and experience all the different types of mixed practice from dairy and beef, to equine and small animals.

I started working at Walwa Vet Practice in August 2010 and spent the first few months tagging along with the boss, Dave. After this, we acquired a second work vehicle and decked it out with all the necessary gear and before I knew it I was off doing the rounds by myself.

I really enjoy working in the Upper Murray – the countryside is spectacular all year round and all the activities I enjoy outside of work are right on my doorstep – fishing, four wheel driving, trail bike riding, snowboarding and boating to name a few.

Most of my colleagues work in practices where small animals dominate and maybe 20–30% of work involves large animals, so they spend the majority of their time indoors. I get to spend most of my time outside, as Walwa Veterinary Practice is a true rural mixed practice
with about 70% of our work consisting of large animal cases. My boss has a very ‘can do’ and ‘have a go’ attitude, which I admire.

We are all about providing professional and economic solutions to the rural community and I keep this in mind every day as I go about my job.

Lauren’s story

I chose to become a country vet as I grew up in the rural community of the Upper Murray where I developed a love for animals and working outdoors. After I finished high school I moved to Melbourne for three years to complete a Bachelor of Animal Science and Management. Living in the inner suburbs  of Melbourne made me appreciate the country and the rural community that I was raised in and I couldn’t wait to get back to it as soon as I had finished my final exams.

While completing my veterinary science degree at Wagga, I used my clinical rotations to experience both rural veterinary practices and city clinics and found I enjoyed my time in the rural clinics that little bit more.

I commenced working with Dave and Richard at Walwa in August 2011. I love the variety of our case load. In one day we can treat cattle, horses, bison, wombats, small animals and donkeys and no two weeks are ever the same.

Being a country vet allows you to get to know your clients. You can see how passionate they are and how they trust you with their animals. Sure we may work long hours but I would not have it any other way.

Dave Hall
Practice owner

Richard Sanders
Practice employee

Lauren Tyrell
Practice employee

This story appears in the May 2012 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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