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Launched In Ontario

A vet with a passion, and an organization wanting to improve member services, have banded together to launch an innovative new information service in the Ontario beef industry.

Ontario veterinarian Mac Littlejohn and the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) have unveiled a new “Vet on Call” service — thought to be an industry first — that lets farmers pose animal health questions online. It’s a way of providing producers access to general preventive animal health information that Littlejohn feels is crucial to help the beef industry be profitable.

“Prevention is the key to many animal health problems on farm and many beef farmers don’t have regular access to information about preventative medicine,” says Littlejohn. “The goal is to provide that to help ensure we have a beef industry in Ontario for the long term.”

Through his regular contact with farmers, Littlejohn noticed a lack of information available about preventative medical protocols that, if implemented, could improve overall herd health and ultimately, product quality. Farmers in other sectors, like dairy, have more regular interaction with veterinarians, which he attributes to the seasonality of the beef industry and the large number of producers who have off-farm jobs.

This presented an opportunity to try using the Internet to reach farmers with health information. Littlejohn is an advocate for using new technology, and once he identified this need in the industry, he began floating his idea past various producers to see what they thought.

Their positive feedback led him to the OCA, the largest organization representing beef farmers in Ontario. They were glad to come on board, seeing the project as a way to offer additional services, especially in light of a recent membership survey that showed a need for OCA to be more active in areas like animal health.

“Our survey clearly showed that producers wanted OCA to provide more information on animal health,” says Lianne Appleby, OCA’s communications manager, who works with Littlejohn on this project. “So when Mac approached us with this idea, it seemed like a great fit for both of us.”

The “Vet on Call” service is purely voluntary. Littlejohn is donating his time to answer queries and will not promote products or recommend specific brands to farmers. The OCA is providing the web infrastructure and staff time to help run the program.

Here’s how it works. Beef producers go to the OCA website and fill out an online form that asks them for some demographic information about their farm, in addition to their question. This is to make sure that questions are legitimate and are coming from real producers.

“We want to make sure we’re not wasting everyone’s time with bogus inquiries,” says Appleby. “The way people answer the questions will help us identify which ones are real and which ones aren’t”.

The questions are then submitted via the OCA office to Littlejohn who reviews them and provides a response back to the questioner via the OCA, ensuring that there is no direct contact between the veterinarian and producers. That was one of the conditions placed on the initiative by both the OCA and the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (CVO) before the project was launched.

The idea of dispensing veterinary advice without having visited a farm or seeing an animal is a controversial one and Littlejohn is quick to point out that “Vet on Call” is not a replacement for the direct vet-client relationship. Both he and the OCA consulted with the CVO prior to starting the initiative and agreed that as part of the program, he would not provide diagnoses over phone or email, and that he wouldn’t advertise his clinic or where he worked to those posing online questions.

“I am not providing diagnosis advice to farmers with specific problems on their farms nor am I recruiting new clients,” he says. “I want to be able to answer general, preventive animal health questions, like vaccination protocols, calving issues or scours prevention. It’s tough for farmers to stay on top of everything so this is a way to help them get to information.”

The service was launched in late January and at the time of interview, has been available for approximately two weeks. So far, only two questions had been submitted — both dealing with nutrition — but Littlejohn hopes the service will pick up as more farmers become aware of its existence. Ideally, he’d like to have about a question a day although he thinks he could handle a greater number if necessary. This will depend on the complexity of the issues and how much additional research he might need to do in order to provide an answer.

Appleby notes that if the service does take off, OCA would be interested in posting the questions and answers on its website as part of an online message board. That way, producers could

search for the answers before submitting a question. OCA will also monitor the questions for any emerging issues or themes that might require additional information.

“If we notice a trend in the types of questions we are getting, we will then follow up on those topics with articles in OCA’s magazine,” says Appleby. For every question that is asked, she adds, there are likely several other producers with the same question so the articles will be both timely and topical to address emerging issues. Littlejohn will assist OCA with the articles as they are needed.

Both Appleby and Littlejohn admit that Internet use amongst beef farmers and the lack of high speed access could be a barrier to the project’s success. There are no clear statistics on how many of Ontario’s 19,000 beef farmers use the Internet, and users in many rural areas are still forced to rely on dial-up service.

“This project is an experiment for sure,” admits Appleby. “But we hope that it will take off. It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds over the next few months as word about the program spreads.”

Littlejohn is optimistic. “We’re in the Internet age now, and anytime there’s dialogue on a topic, people can learn something. I care about the beef industry and I want to help make sure farmers have the tools to stay in business.”

The program can be accessed at www.cattle.guelph.on.ca.

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