If you are new to keeping livestock you may have overlooked the absolute need for a good farm vet. Most people who own domestic pets like cats and dogs are used to taking their furry friends to the vet from time to time. If you've been lucky, your furry friend hasn't needed any extensive vet care and you've basically just had to come in once a year for updating vaccines and the occasional minor issue. If this is the case, congrats, you haven't had to deal with any significant health issues with your pet and therefore you probably don't have much of a relationship with your vet. When it comes to livestock, this situation is a bit different.
First of all, find a vet to see your dog or cat is quite easy, finding a vet who treats sheep, chickens, and pigs is another story. Depending on your location, finding a farm vet could be a challenge. You could consult the phone book or Google but my suggestion would be to find a local farm that has the same types of critters as you do and ask them who is their vet. Also, don't be afraid to ask this farmer a lot of questions. Things like "how available", "how much experience do they have" and "how is their pricing", are all great topics to cover from an unbiased current customer.
Understanding Each Other
This is a big one for me. We are lucky enough to have a vet that not only sees our dogs but can also treat our livestock. However, we had to come to an understanding of investment dollars and how I feel about my dogs vs my livestock. Basically, I'd do anything for my dogs if it meant improving their quality of life. Right now I have 3 senior dogs, 2 of which are on $100+ worth of medications every month to keep them going. I feed them expensive foods, take them in for regular blood tests, and pay an ungodly amount of money for medications that seem to be keeping father time at bay. My vet originally became familiar with me through treating my dogs so when we moved into farm animals I had to make myself clear, I love these guys, but they aren't pets.
I want nothing more than to have all of my animals healthy but the lengths I'm willing to go to for a chicken aren't far. For our poultry in general, everything is either going to be eaten or is producing eggs that we will eat. Therefore, I don't want to pump anyone full of medication as this will render the chicken useless to me and if a chicken is now useless why am I paying a vet to treat its medical needs.
This is not to say that if you have chickens for meat or eggs there is no need for a vet. We had a bad batch of meat birds last Fall that seemed to grow slowly and a few died right before butchering. We butchered the healthy-looking birds and everything, to the naked eye, looked fine internally with them. We decided not to sell them to customers. I spoke with my vet and he recommended we pursue some testing. So I took one sickly looking bird, culled it, froze it, and sent it to a testing facility. After several weeks they call my vet with the results. My birds had contracted some sort of minor virus that was likely brought on by stress (a little backstory, we had terrible predator issues earlier in the season with this batch of birds and the stress of being under constant attack likely caused them to be more susceptible to sickness, much like people). While I was sad to hear my birds had caught something I was relieved that it was something serious like Marek's or Avian Flu. Those birds are now clear for us to eat and we can go into next spring with fresh meat chickens knowing they should be healthy. The testing and shipping of the dead bird set me back about $50 which is what my vet and I agreed was the maximum that would make sense to spend.
My vet also gave me his opinion that while the virus likely came from the hatchery I got the chicks from, he would advise that I'm okay to try to buy another batch from them as the transmission of some minor viruses with any large group of animals is almost unavoidable. We've had terrific results from this hatchery in the past so getting the green light from my vet to try them again put my mind at ease to continue with them.
How Much Money is Too Much
This is an important conversation to have with your vet. For us, anything that is producing meat or eggs is not something we want to treat but from there, things get fuzzy. I have a small rabbitry of Giant Angora Rabbits. These are the 2nd rarest breed of rabbit in the US and are my prized possession on the farm. I sell the wool and breed my rabbits a few times a year which makes them the most profitable animals we own. I've had two rabbits die since I began the rabbitry and both times I spent WAY too much money at the vet trying to save them. Both rabbits that died were young female rabbits that I planned to be my star breeders. These rabbits aren't easy to come by and are also not cheap, so when one gets sick I'm automatically thinking I can justify any amounts of money spent to save her because she's worth so much in the long run.
This is a slippery slope, my friends, as that logic only makes sense if the rabbit lives, mine didn't. One rabbit, who had gotten out of her enclosure and eaten something she shouldn't, was too far gone by the time I got to the vet so I had them euthanize her. That turned out to be more money than I thought and I got an earful when I came home. We cull all farm animals ourselves typically so my boyfriend didn't understand why I felt the need to waste money by having her euthanized at a vet. For me it was more for the peace of mind of knowing for sure there was nothing that could be done to save her.
My 2nd sick rabbit was still savable when I brought her into the vet. They took x-rays and could see that her stomach was full of wool from grooming herself, this is known as "wool block". She was quite alert and active so they advised me that she was a reasonable candidate for surgery. I agreed, signed the paperwork, and left for work. A few hours later I got a call that the surgery went well and she was recovering. However, about an hour after that, I got a call that she suddenly passed away. This is quite common with rabbits as they don't handle stress well. I won't lie, the bill for this procedure was huge! Although arguably, this rabbit was probably worth a couple of thousand dollars throughout her expected lifespan, she was still dead and worth $0 in the end.
My point of telling these two stories is that my vet understood my decision making on all accounts and didn't pressure me one way or another. It's hard to determine, in the heat of a crisis, how much money is reasonable to spend on an animal. Having a level headed vet who will give you an honest opinion means the world to me. I've had vets in the past pressure me to do additional testing, medications, and diet changes for my dogs. I usually did it and looking back sometimes I wish I hadn't. I'm very thankful for the vet-client relationship I'm in now and feel confident that I'll be able to properly care for my animals no matter what.
You will need to decide for yourself what level of vet care you want for your animals. Whatever you decide, be sure to communicate this clearly with your vet and gauge their reaction. Some vets are the "do anything to save the animal" type and this may not line up with your farm goals or budget.