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Blackleg is a deadly bacterial disease that kills quickly.
It is usually aimed at calves between 16 and 24 months old. According to the Ohio State University website, cattle unlucky enough to become infected can die within 24 hours.
While this disease is fatal, it is extremely preventable.
In the spring, most of the major animal breeders, like Pam Haley of Haley Farms, visit their local veterinary clinic to get the black leg vaccine. They usually get it with no problem, but this year is different.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a backlog in the medical supply chain that is slowing the distribution of some needed supplies like penicillin and the Black Leg vaccine to veterinary departments and enabling farmers in Wayne, Ashland and Holmes counties – and across Ohio – to do so made tend to their animals on schedule.
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When Haley visited the Tri-County Animal Clinic in West Salem, she expected to go in and out with the shots for her cows. That didn’t happen.
“They didn’t have what I needed and I was like, ‘What? Why didn’t you?'” Haley said. “I’m not blaming her for not having it because it really isn’t her fault.”
Medical delays raise concerns among farmers about disease outbreaks
Farmers like Haley, who raise cows for processing plants, need to immunize their herd against other diseases related to black-leggedness. Coronavirus strains unrelated to the pandemic must be treated properly all year round.
Delays in medicine have raised concerns about disease outbreaks on farms.
“I never thought we would be behind at this time of year if we do this,” said Haley. “It’s not the first thing that surprised me this year.”
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Without the timely arrival of this medicine, some animals could become sick or die.
Although Haley is very aware of this possibility, she isn’t too worried because she will have the vaccine in a few weeks, she said.
COVID-19 has been a long-running problem in the supply chain, hence their advice: order things weeks in advance.
The search for alternative drugs
Kurt Wachtel, co-owner of Spring Walk Farms in Holmes County, learned this lesson early on in the pandemic.
When supply chains froze in April, May and June, Quail was left without certain supplies and medicines for its dairy cows.
“I don’t think we waited more than 30 days for medication,” said Wachtel. “So we kind of knew that this medicine was being reordered in the back of our mind.”
Now he’s taking note of what drugs or supplies he’s about to run out of and orders them weeks in advance.
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If a drug is left behind and it takes weeks to arrive, Wachtel works with his veterinarian to find an alternative.
“We hope we can find a replacement or a generic that does essentially the same thing,” he said.
As the office manager of the Tri-County Veterinary Clinic, Candi Schlatter takes care of the clinic’s inventory. When they don’t have a single type of medicine, they look for an alternative.
But this task is not that easy. Some vaccines and drugs are more effective than others.
“What are you doing as a farmer? Are you limping with no vaccine until something becomes available, or do you find something else?” Asked Schlatter. “People may need to get two shots instead of one.”
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Her clinic was even missing a common antibiotic, penicillin. Schlatter wasn’t sure if this shortage was related to a pandemic, but the lag could be the result of prioritizing the human market over the animal market, she said.
“We tried to find that or a replacement,” she said.
Despite these bottlenecks, Schlatter doesn’t think farmers will have the long-term consequences – like an outbreak of disease.
Many large farm animals have been vaccinated in recent years, so herd immunity is already in place for some diseases, she said.
“A lot has been done for these animals in the past,” said Schlatter. “A delay of three or four months shouldn’t trigger a pandemic.”
Three months, one delivery
Schlatter’s last delay ended when her phone rang in the clinic. It was a medical representative who said her order had just arrived.
Schlatter placed the order in January and she’s still not sure if this is the lowest point.
“Before February we received emails that everything was at short notice,” said Schlatter.
In mid-March, dealers often announced that their packages would arrive a month later, but even that wasn’t a guarantee. Some package dates should be set.
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One of Schlatter’s distributors, Midwest Veterinary Supplies, announced that they would no longer ship after Wednesday, citing concerns about product safety.
“We could never be sure if things would be here by Friday or if they would sit unrefrigerated for five days,” she said.
While that question stays on her mind, other large veterinary clinics like New Pittsburg Veterinary Clinic have had easier inventory management and delayed delivery times.
“We received deliveries again the next day,” said a spokesman for the clinic. “Sometimes it takes two days, but that’s not terrible.”
Prior to the pandemic, the clinic introduced a practice where the shelves are full, which means they can often get by without too many bottlenecks, the spokesman said.
Pandemic, trade war compound medicine shipping delays
Shipping times are always a concern for distribution centers, but a combination of the pandemic and trade war with China has exacerbated this with more delays and headaches.
Factories have closed or slowed due to COVID-19 concerns and outbreaks, while importing raw materials and goods from China has been more expensive, said Brent VanderZwaag, purchasing director at Midwest Veterinary Supply in Minnesota.
Midwest supplies the Tri-County Veterinary Clinic where Haley was seeking the vaccine and other clinics across the Midwest.
“We are the distributors, so we sell to pet owners and mostly veterinarians,” said VanderZwaag. “The makers who make the product have items they can’t make because there’s a piece they can’t get into or because they don’t have enough people.”
Companies that would ship the next day are two or three weeks late.
VanderZwaag’s company felt these effects along the entire supply chain.
Once manufacturers ship their products, a bottleneck occurs in ports and along rail lines, he said.
“The ports in California are sometimes secured for three weeks or more,” he said. “Then there aren’t enough railroad cars to move things from the West to the Midwest.”
This leads to delays for clinics and farmers.
Now Midwest Veterinary Supply only ships three days a week, skipping Thursday and Friday so drivers can make deliveries without risking their freight, VanderZwaag said.
“Usually our customers get their shipments the next day, but so much material has been delayed and ruined due to freezing or hot temperatures,” he said.
“It’s getting worse and worse”
Midwest Veterinary Supply was listed as an essential business when COVID-19 hit while some of its manufacturing partners didn’t.
Over a year later, these producers are still catching up.
Some of the warehouses where VanderZwaag works closed after COVID-19 outbreaks have temporarily been quarantined up to a third of their warehouse workers for two weeks.
“The supply chain is not interrupted, the supply chain is strained,” said VanderZwaag. “It just piles up and adds up.”
He estimates that the backlog he keeps on record has quadrupled over the past year.
After months of expensive imports and a pandemic, the freezing condition closed their Texas warehouse for nearly four days in February, adding further delays in more freight wrecked.
“I don’t think this place has ever been closed for more than a day in its history,” he said.
When the pandemic began, VanderZwaag recalled a shortage of medical masks and gloves that everyone in the medical field wears, including veterinarians.
“It was incredibly difficult to store masks and gloves because the human market will rightly always be in stock faster than the animal market,” said VanderZwaag.
Once these items were given priority by manufacturers, they were easy to buy and store.
With the ongoing vaccination program, syringes and needles are difficult to come by, he said. Most are sent to vaccinate people.
But Midwest Veterinary Supply anticipated this and kept various supplies.
“We made the decision to buy up a ton of syringes and needles six months ago, but even if you do, they can run out pretty quickly if the shortage actually occurs,” said VanderZwaag.
In his experience, most veterinary clinics have sufficient supplies to last only a short time. He hopes, therefore, that this supply will alleviate some supply problems as manufacturers and other distributors struggle to return to pre-pandemic farms.