Hobby farming

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The growth of hobby farming presents a unique opportunity for your veterinary customers

Until my neighbor hollered across the street to ask if I’d like some fresh eggs, I had no idea that he and his wife had a flock of chickens in their back yard in our midtown Omaha neighborhood. He’s not a person I’d expect to see with a chicken perched on his shoulder. My regular route takes me past a house on one of the metro’s busiest streets with a few hens inside a portable fence in the front yard. Whether it’s to eat healthier, more sustainably or locally, to know where your food is coming from, or as a hobby, 4-H or fair project, urban or backyard farming is growing in popularity and presenting growth opportunities for veterinarians in all types of markets.

This summer’s AVMA Convention offers 23 Continuing Education courses in the Urban Farming category alone, plus another six courses devoted to Honey Bee Health and Husbandry. As their website states, these are clearly “hot topics in veterinary medicine” so they are well worth your time to learn about and discuss with your customers.

Urban chicken movement takes off

The “urban chicken” movement has exploded in recent years, and many municipalities across the country have changed their zoning laws to allow for limited numbers of hens inside city limits. The online forum BackyardChickens is just one example of the popularity of poultry with tens of thousands of posts and views, dozens of articles in their Learning Center, and nearly half a million Facebook members. Most veterinarians have had little exposure to poultry medicine, and those who have typically work with huge commercial growers, rather than hobby flocks. My neighbor has struggled to find a clinic who will see his chickens and told me “the biggest help we’ve had is from Tractor Sup- ply … they‘re very knowledgeable and always have time to help you out.” There are obviously gaps in the hobby poultry market for veterinarians willing to ll them.

Taking the time to learn about the basics of poultry care and the most common health issues and treatments will give you a great starting point for discussions with your customers about this growing market. Some excellent re- sources include backyardchickens.com mentioned above (click on Learning Center); the Merck Manual (just search “backyard poultry” at merckvetmanual.com to bring up a variety of topics); and caringpets.org (click “chicken hen” in the dropdown under Animal Care Guides).

Chicken health issues include:
• Viral diseases, including Marek’s Disease, Infectious Bronchitis, Avian Encephalomyelitis and Fowl Pox – a viral disease contracted through skin abrasions

• Bacterial infections, such as Mycoplasmosis (Chronic Respiratory Disease), Salmonellosis, Colibacillosis (caused by E. coli ) and Newcastle Disease

• Respiratory diseases including Coccidiosis, Cryptosporidiosis and Toxoplasmosis

• Egg Binding, a chicken unable to pass her eggs which can lead to oviduct prolapse

• Internal and external parasites, including lice, mites, ticks, tapeworms and roundworms

Other livestock

While chickens have become a sort of symbol for the local food movement, some backyard farmers joke that they are “gateway livestock” to adding more species, as space – and zoning laws – allow. Other fowl including turkeys, ducks, geese and even quail and guineas are becoming more popular. Your customers may find they have clients adding sheep, goats – even llamas or alpacas to their acreages or backyard menageries. Knowing some of the essentials for the care and treatment of these small ruminants and camelids will help in recommending products to your practitioners.

All sheep and goats should be vaccinated for Clostridium perfringens Type C and D and tetanus, since clostridial diseases are caused by bacteria that commonly live in the gut and manure of both species. This in an off-label vaccine for llamas and alpacas. Soremouth is a viral skin disease of sheep and goats that can be prevented with Ovine Ecthyma vaccine.

Hoof rot is a bacterial infection of the hoof, more prevalent during wet weather or when animals spend long periods on wet ground. Treatment includes trimming away as much of the affected hoof as possible, cleaning the hoof with a product labeled for foot rot, and often antibiotics. To keep their hooves healthy, most backyard ruminants require a hoof trim every 4-6 weeks.

Like all species, sheep, goats and camelids are affected by internal and external parasites, such as lice, mites and intestinal parasites, and it’s common for goats to harbor several species of coccidia. For optimal health, salt and minerals should be provided year-round and formulated for the specific species.

The National Honey Board estimates that there are about 125,000 beekeepers across the country, most of them hobbyists with fewer than 25 hives. Your veterinary customers probably never thought they’d be treating honey bees in their practice, but since honey and related products enter the human food chain, bees are considered a food animal species under the new FDA regulations related to medically-important antibiotics. With the Veterinary Food Directive regulatory changes that took effect at the start of this year, both hobby and commercial beekeepers are now required to consult a veterinarian before treating a diseased colony with antibiotics. This requires veterinarians to be knowledgeable about honey bees and establish a valid veterinarian-client-patient relation- ship before prescribing antibiotics for a bee colony.

Most veterinarians have had little exposure to poultry medicine, and those who have typically work with huge commercial growers, rather than hobby flocks.

You can help take the sting out of these requirements for your customers by directing them to the AVMA.org website, where they can enter “honey bee” in the search. Clicking on “Honey Bees 101 for Veterinarians” will pull up a page where AVMA members can link to both a PDF guide with basic information on honey bees, along with three webinars that “introduce veterinarians to various aspects of beekeeping and honey bee medicine” according to the site.

As the popularity and momentum of hobby farming continues to grow, veterinarians and clinic staff who welcome the challenge of working with species new or unfamiliar to their practice have an excellent opportunity to expand their knowledge and their practice revenue. Your efforts to learn more about the variety of animals, what keeps them healthy and the products you carry to promote optimum wellness will be a valuable benefit to your clinics exploring this unique market.