New antibiotic regulations challenge lamb producers

LEDUC, Alta. — Many Alberta lamb producers are raising concerns over upcoming changes to antibiotic rules, arguing the potential lack of veterinarians willing to work on sheep could make business more challenging.

While solutions have been offered to try and ease concerns, farmers are still worried the changes could mean added costs.

As well, some producers have raised concerns that there is a lack of veterinarians willing to work on sheep. There are also questions around veterinarian reliability if they are located a long distance from the farm.

Producers raised these issues Nov. 3 during the Alberta Lamb Producers annual general meeting in Leduc.

They are in response to new rules, which take effect Dec. 1, that will require all Canadian livestock producers to get antibiotic prescriptions from veterinarians. They will only be able to access them through veterinary clinics, pharmacies or commercial feed mills if they need mixes in feed.

As well, producers must develop a working relationship with a vet if they want to have good access to antibiotics. However, they won’t need to have an individual prescription for every bottle of antibiotic they buy and veterinarians don’t have to administer all medications.

“These changes might be tricky for some people,” Darlene Stein, chair of the Alberta Lamb Producers board, said in an interview following the meeting. “While I can see some benefits to this, there might also be risks.”

What makes it particularly challenging for some sheep and small-ruminant producers is that there aren’t many veterinarians who have lots of knowledge on such animals. Even though some vets might know a little bit and are willing to work on them, some producers remain skeptical.

Alberta provincial veterinarian Dr. Keith Lehman and Dr. Phil Buote, deputy registrar and complaints director with the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, were trying to ease concerns as producers asked them questions during the meeting.

Buote told farmers that even if a vet isn’t considered a sheep specialist, they still might be able to meet their needs. He said veterinarians, in many cases, are willing to take on new clients, engage with producers and work out issues.

The key to making the new rules work, other vets said, is for producers and veterinarians to develop a solid relationship. To have medication on hand when needed, they say it will be crucial for producers to have that relationship and establish a preventive flock-health program.

“They both have to be willing to play ball,” said veterinarian Dr. Kathy Parker. “What they are going to have to do is develop relationships with someone to meet all of those requirements.”

She explained better relationships could mean gaining access to more appropriate drugs. In some cases, even though the prescribed antibiotic might be different than what’s usually bought over the counter, it could actually be better for the animal.

Dr. Lynn Tait, who attended the Leduc meeting, agreed with the need for a strong relationship, but said there are other solutions producers can turn to if there are a lack of vets willing to work on sheep in their area.

For instance, she said producers can contact vets like her to establish protocols and a preventive health program. She may only visit them once a year, but because a working relationship was established, she would be able to write prescriptions or feed scripts that can be filed by the local vet.

“If you have a lambing problem in the middle of the night, you still need your guy who is 20 minutes down the road, but I can set up their protocols and preventive stuff and their vaccination programs,” she said.

She referenced Prairie Swine Health Services as an example. She said the clinic can deliver medication and supplies to clients who aren’t nearby.

Preventive health will also be key, she added.

“It’s all about having protocols and management in place so they don’t need the emergency work. I think truly that profitability in sheep is based on preventive health.”

She recommended producers get in touch with their local vet and take a chance on some of the new faces. They tend to be more keen and willing to learn.

“Don’t be afraid of the new young vet. They might be the best option because they are usually the most eager to learn,” said Tait, who also teaches courses at the University of Calgary, noting there’s more interest in small ruminant health among students.

“There is more and more newer grads open to this. They might not know much per se, but they are very open.”

Some producers at the meeting agreed they need to do a better job of reaching out to their vets and supporting new ones entering the industry.

“Sometimes producers give them that attitude, trying to prove to the vet they know more about sheep,” said Tamara Bidwell, a sheep producer near Rocky Mountain House, Alta., following the meeting.

“We need to give them some grace and give value, too. Some of us might be soured and not every one has treated vets doing sheep very well.”

Alberta Lamb Producers has set up a web page where producers can see which vets are open to working on small ruminants. The page can be viewed at

A directory of veterinarians and what they practice on can also be found at

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