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Country vet recalls stories, challenges on Sask. farms

REGINA — Dr. Wolfgang von Staden saw himself as part of the farm management team during his 39 years as a veterinarian in Redvers, Sask.

“My whole basis is to give sound advice. If not, the farmer goes bankrupt,” said von Staden, who would often drive around a pasture to get “an overall feeling.”

He said the economics of using a vet had to be feasible, so he didn’t always charge a fee.

“You’re part of the team of running a farm,” said von Staden, who detailed his life story in the book, Memories of a Veterinarian.

“You don’t try to fool the farmer, it will spread like wildfire,” he said of rural practice.

His wife, Gieselind, who was also a veterinarian who emigrated from East Germany, said: “He advised them when they asked.”

She said the work was often done in cold conditions, with von Staden travelling tens of thousands of kilo-metres each year.

“He could drive 50 miles (80 km) and back for $5 a call,” said Gieselind.

The most he charged for a caesarean section was $250, with the cost closer to double that in today’s clinics.

Von Staden did it because he was grateful to be in Canada, having survived the Second World War and the Russian army’s destruction of his family’s farm in Germany. He arrived in Canada in 1953 with $20 in his pocket.

“I was thankful. I came with nothing and it was farmers’ money that helped me to build up my practice. My loyalty goes to farmers.”

Redvers town administrator Bonnie Rutten called him an “old style country vet that would come to the farms as opposed to you having to bring the animal in. He was very much wanting to help the farmer help the animals.

“He was intense in his business, always a busy man from the time he got to your farm to the time he left.”

Dellan Mohrbutter of Key M Auction Services at Redvers recalled how von Staden announced his arrival in a farmyard by honking as he drove up the lane in his diesel powered Mercedes car.

Mohrbutter, who used von Staden on his purebred Charolais cattle farm, called him a good vet, confident in his abilities.

“If you called him up and had an animal sick and you diagnosed what was wrong with the animal, that was the biggest mistake you would do right there,” he said.

“You didn’t diagnose the problem for him. You let him diagnose the problem.”

Von Staden worked 365 days a year, and it didn’t matter if you called him day or night or holidays, he said.

“That does not happen in today’s world. And if you do, you pay overtime,” said Mohrbutter.

“Now it’s getting very difficult to get people to go into the country to work with large animals. Most want to stay in the cities and work on small pets and animals.… He would tell us stories where he’d go to a farmer’s yard where you’d work on the cow tied to a rope to a post in the yard.”

Von Staden performed as many as 240 caesarean sections a year, noting how an influx of imported cattle in past years made many of these necessary.

“I know the economics of it will be of help,” said von Staden.

“You have the feeling you have achieved something.”

His marriage to Gieselind gave him a wife and companion but also a co-worker.

“She made life easier for me,” he said. “It was less stressful. The whole setup became easier. She had her own experience. I could profit from that.”

Gieselind was not a licenced veterinarian in Canada, but she was an invaluable assistant.

They worked mainly on livestock but also cared for pets and exotics such as a boa constrictor.

Von Staden, who raised purebred Schnauzers, recalled his despair when he accidentally backed over a farm dog and had to tell the farmer. To his surprise, the farmer responded with laughter, saying the dog was deaf and blind and was going to be put down the next day.

In another incident, a farmer called to say his cow’s uterus had fallen out. Von Staden arrived prepared for a serious emergency case and found the afterbirth rather than a uterus. He speculated that the newborn might have already been eaten by the farm dog.

“The farmer was so angry with himself,” he said.

Von Staden, who also served as the local coroner for 22 years, was occasionally asked for advice about human medicine, and in one in-stance was even asked to pull human teeth.

In his early years in Canada, he worked as a farm labourer and at a veterinary clinic.

“I really wanted to farm, but it wasn’t financially, practically, possible,” he said.

Instead he chose veterinary science as the next best option because of his farm background.

“It’s practically necessary in a large animal practice to be acquainted in farm methods,” von Staden said.

He studied at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ont., and started a practice in Redvers with his first wife, Hanna, who died of cancer in 1985.

They raised two children, Peter and Karin, in the family home where Von Staden, with Hanna’s assistance, often performed surgeries.

The von Stadens witnessed major changes in the industry from the use of technologies such as ultrasound to larger and more specialized farms to the profession’s gender changeover.

“When I started, we had 50 male students and five ladies and now it’s the opposite,” he said.

He retired at 72 and then worked until 79 as a locum in Hanna, Alta.

“He was a very hard worker,” said Gieselind.

Von Staden still craves the work, even though a slower pace today without pets in a Regina townhome means more freedom to travel the world with Gieselind.

“I still feel sorry to get older and that I cannot practise. It was my life. I enjoyed it totally.”

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