Although technology is transforming the role of the rural vet, Keith Newman discovers lack of access means most local farmers are missing the online revolution.

Although Hawke’s Bay Veterinary Services loves the new fibre optic network linking its four regional offices, it’s frustrated it can’t keep the bulk of its clients in the fast information loop, because they can’t get cellular network coverage or even decent internet access.

While lightspeed links have enabled the company to engage in high speed video conferencing, remote diagnosis and other innovations, its 26 veterinary surgeons are flying blind on many farms and have to wait until they’re back in the coverage zone or office to restore connections or download critical data.

Vet Services chief executive, Ian Walker, says it’s ironic, considering the importance of agriculture to the overall economy and the fact that 25% of the sheep population is along the East Coast, that you can’t get decent cellphone coverage.

Vet Services CEO Ian Walker and Stuart Badger, senior vet clinician

He says, 75% of the geographical area Vet Services services is without coverage and the satellite option is too expensive. “It’s a real issue.”

Initially, says Walker, the cellular carriers didn’t believe such a vast area isn’t covered by their networks … “Then you basically get the message that if there’s no money in it for them then they’re not interested.”

Despite those constraints, Vet Services, which has had a 24/7 call-out policy since 1949, is determined to keep ahead of the technology curve in order to be more responsive, even if it means sticking to the landline to make phone calls and send emails.

Instant information essential

If it’s got four legs – whether it’s a pet rabbit, kitten or puppy, an exotic species, a stud ram, bull or stallion, a herd of milking cows, beef cattle or deer – then Vet Services is in its element. To do its job, the company is heavily reliant on its computer systems.

It needs to be online all the time to keep up with the play, for record keeping, stocktaking, debtors and creditors and health records, making full use of about 45 computers between its four offices in Dannevirke, Hastings and Napier, all connecting back to the head office server in Waipukurau.

“We need to do business right now; to have information available instantly, whether that’s electronic diaries, records of who comes into the clinic, animal histories and radiographs so we know what’s happened previously,” says Walker.

Vet Services continues to invest in sophisticated diagnostic tools and make the maximum use of its full surgical, X-ray, endoscopy and scanning facilities, ultrasound pregnancy testing and comprehensive laboratory service.

Walker had been eyeing up fibre optics ever since it first became available but it proved too expensive until recently. “The providers were just being too greedy in what they were changing.”

Not so long ago, backing up critical databases over the copper telephone lines took up to two hours and didn’t start until after midnight to prevent interference with their daily data processing.

Then Walker got Hawke’s Bay telco NOW to walk him through the options, ultimately settling on a customised mix – Telecom providing voice services and InspireNet the fibre link in Dannevirke, Chorus in Waipukurau, and Unison’s GPON (Gigabit-capable Passive Optical Network) fibre to link its Napier and Hastings offices.

Dedicated fibre network

Those different services are now woven into a dedicated wide area network (WAN) for data and voice communications; office servers back-up in real time to the central office and all the phone lines are aggregated over a separate link using IP Voice, enabling free internal calls through a virtual PBX exchange.

It’s been a big investment to shift to fibre, but Walker believes the business case is sound with payback coming through reduced cost in phone line rentals, increased speed, greater efficiency and the ability to deploy a range of new services.

Once everything’s bedded in there will be opportunities for further savings, including the ability to use cloud-based virtual servers to replace separate servers in each office delivering desktop applications.

Traffic now hums along at between 50 and 100 megabits per second, ideal for example, for a multi-clinic video conference system.

Previously, weekly meetings were held at each clinic on different days which meant someone had to attend each of them, particularly if it involved sharing specialist knowledge. “A lot of that information had to be repeated. Under the new system we’re coordinating meetings using big screens and cameras so a topic only needs to be discussed once.”

The same technology is also being used for remote analysis or consultation. “Being able to communicate with universities, laboratories and other vet professionals has always been a high priority for us and now that’s much easier.”

Vet Services is also rolling out digital radiography. “We can set up an X-ray and send it to Massey University or Auckland or Australia instantaneously and have a horse or dog expert look at that on-screen while we talk to them.”

While IT is always expensive, Walker says it can also bring great value, for example the $100,000 per unit for digital radiography which replaces the old developing tanks and the use of chemicals.

“We get to play with the image more quickly, it’s clearer with more well-defined images of tissue, and because it’s easier we tend to use this equipment more. You can have an image on screen in front of you in 20 seconds.” There are also portable systems for field work, provided there’s access to a three-pin plug.

Vets help best practice

In November last year Vet Services won the 2012 Westpac Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, with judges saying the business had a clear customer service focus, was innovative and strived to deliver valuable programmes to assist clients in their businesses and with their pets.

Walker says the award had a lot to do with the structure of the company, its governance, response to staff and customer service. “Technology is a big part of that, the flow of data into our laboratories, for example, goes straight into the computer system, there’s no paper involved now.”

Most of the call-outs these days are not the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff when there’s an injury or emergency, but helping farmers improve livestock health and productivity through pro-active animal production services.

That includes working with herds of sheep, cattle, dairy cows and deer and horses – artificial insemination, vaccinations and assisting with lambing and calving. Vet Services mobile ultrasound systems, for example enables vets to scan the tendons in animals or look at their heart valves on the farm; when BayBuzz called, nine of them were deployed scanning sheep.

“We’re in a unique situation where we have the ability to convert good science into practical and profitable on-farm solutions,” says Walker.

But there’s still that irritating constraint felt by farmers across the region that they’re not able to fully participate in a technological revolution that has the potential to transform farming, because they can’t use mobile communication.

Walker cites the move toward electronic ID of individual farm animals and monitoring what is happening on a particular property, or having them run across the scales so their tag is read and weight recorded.

Getting up-to-date weather or market reports, banking or accessing national databases of critical farm information is not a reality with low-grade internet connections.

And it’s not as if the internet is some kind of optional extra or luxury, as these services often have to do with the nation’s biosecurity, such as notifying the appropriate authority when animals are shifted form one farm to another so their electronic ID follows them.

This kind of record keeping is increasingly part of international ‘gate to the plate’ requirements so it’s known which farm certain sheep and beef came from. “If you can’t get access to the technology and the providers don’t see the value of changing that, what do you do?” he asks.

While the Government is helping to fund fast internet to rural schools and some farmers can “parasite off that”, it’s still only a partial solution. And asking farmers to pay for additional cellphone towers or relay stations isn’t going to sit well.

To some, Google’s visionary balloon-based network being trialled in the South Island, can’t come soon enough, but in reality is still experimental and likely to be years away.

Technology has come a long way in the 65 years Vet Services has been in the game. “When I came to live 25 kilometres from Waipukurau in 1989, we still had a party line. And until recently we only had copper; now we’ve got cellphone, wireless and fibre,” says Walker.

That’s alright for the townies but he remains concerned at how the farming community, not all of them in the backblocks either, are missing out on an economic game-changer.

“The imagination could run wild, you could be out at Wimbledon with access to a client’s data, be able to determine pricing, enter data, produce an invoice, swipe their card and get it all done and paid for there and then.”

Like he says, there’s much scope for improvement.

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