December 01, 2012


 Enduring, but in reduced numbers

​Speakers predict fewer cattle veterinarians will provide broader services

Posted Nov. 19, 2012  
Dr. G. Kee Jim expects fewer veterinarians will work on beef cattle in the near future.

He thinks many who remain will have prominent roles on consulting teams that perform services as varied as accounting, employee training, and cattle nutrition planning. The profession’s work with large-scale beef producers will transition from the examination of the diseased and dying to the use of training in scientific fields such as pathology and epidemiology to work with other professions to increase cattle owner profits.

“Our role has to be one of figuring out how to improve the net profitability, the bottom line, of our large customers—i.e., the ones that will still be around,” he said. “We all may have notions, you know, of the romance of the small herd, and if you are a physician emulator as a veterinarian, if that’s your role model, then fine: Try to figure out how to service the small dairies, the small beef herds.”

Dr. Jim, a founding partner of Feedlot Health Manage­ment Services in southern Alberta, was among presenters at the American Association of Bovine Practitioners annual conference who predicted bovine medicine will change and advised colleagues to adapt. He described a future involving management on ranches and feedlots, and increased income for those who figure out what services ranchers do not want to perform themselves.

“You have to provide the services that your customers want and want you to do,” Dr. Jim said.

Several presenters at the meeting this September in Montreal similarly described an evolution toward beef and dairy work that involves less clinical care. Others indicated that areas of the U.S. and Canada that have no veterinarians but thousands of livestock are not so much a result of  shortages of veterinarians, but rather, are areas that would not give veterinarians a good quality of life.

”If you want somebody to come out and deliver a calf for $35 like ‘old Doc’ did in 1965, how does that address the $150,000 debt load?”
Dr. M. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president, American Association of Bovine Practitioners

Dr. M. Gatz Riddell, AABP executive vice president, expects that a spectrum of cattle operation sizes—as well as varied levels of abilities among owners—will continue over the next 30 years. While he thinks Dr. Jim has an exceptional ability to deliver services to large-scale producers, Dr. Riddell said after the meeting that traditional practice likely will not completely follow Dr. Jim’s lead because of the needs of small and medium cattle operations.

However, Dr. Riddell agrees that the number of food animal veterinarians likely will decline as animal agriculture businesses continue on a trend of consolidation. 

Decline pending

The AABP has about 5,200 members, 4,600 of whom are dues-paying members, Dr. Riddell said. About 1,200 veterinarians and students attended the September meeting.

Dr. Riddell told attendees near the close of the conference they were being unrealistic if they thought the AABP would maintain membership numbers at the current level over the next five or 10 years. He later clarified that while membership likely will decline, the diversity of member careers and backgrounds will increase.

He said in a later interview, “I think the contraction in animal agriculture is going to continue, and what I said is really relevant if we don’t change our model and the industries don’t change, because the vast majority of animal protein is probably going to be produced on operations that will tend to trend larger.”

Anne Dunford, a market analyst and consultant, said few countries, such as Brazil, have increasing numbers of livestock. She expects that North American companies with access to capital and credit will drive consolidation in the beef cattle market. Profits will depend on risk management, and cattle owners’ longevity in the industry will be connected with their tolerance of volatility.

In addition, areas with cattle and no nearby veterinarians do not have shortages of veterinarians but shortages of people willing to work long hours for little money, according to Dr. Murray Jelinski, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. He said that predictably, veterinarians practice in populated areas with good soil, yet in the U.S. and Australia, people are responding to the absence of veterinarians in rural areas with proposals to open veterinary schools, which he likened to “pushing a rope.”

Dr. Riddell questioned whether some cattle owners in areas considered to have insufficient access to veterinary services actually are unwilling to pay modern rates that would give veterinarians sustainable businesses and middle-class incomes.

”If you want somebody to come out and deliver a calf for $35 like ‘old Doc’ did in 1965, how does that address the $150,000 debt load?” he asked.

Cows are treated as commodities, Dr. Jelinski said. With declining numbers of farms being run by an aging population of producers, he expects an accelerated pace of consolidation.

Veterinarians will see many opportunities in cattle practice, Dr. Jelinski said. But the areas unable to attract large animal veterinarians likely do not have the animal populations needed to support veterinarians. He sees incentives such as loan repayment programs as temporary solutions. 

Adapting cattle care

Dr. Riddell expects more veterinarians will become owners and managers of cattle operations, continuing a trend he has seen in recent years. Those veterinarians use different skills and talents than those commonly taught in veterinary schools.

“Everybody, myself included, goes to vet school to fix sick animals or hurt animals,” Dr. Riddell said. In food animal practice, disease prevention is instead the focus.
Dr. G. Kee Jim describes veterinarians’ changing roles in cattle practice. He gave the presentation Sept. 20 in Montreal during the annual conference of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners.
(Photo by Greg Cima​)
Working in prevention requires a different perspective than does securing a plate on a dog’s broken leg, surgically correcting a horse’s twisted intestine, or performing a cesarean section on a cow. Prevention involves tasks such as helping to select bulls that will sire calves with birth weights low enough that cows can deliver them without intervention, preventing fires rather than extinguishing them.

Dr. Jelinski noted that cattle owners or their employees often perform tasks such as checking cows for pregnancy instead of paying veterinarians for the services. He thinks veterinarians lack the influence needed to fight to retain such services, but they can receive some income for the procedures if they hire veterinary technicians to perform tasks at prices producers are willing to pay.

 As veterinarians change which services they provide, he sees the possibility that their services will conflict with those provided by other professionals, including geneticists and nutritionists.

Dr. Daryl Nydam, whose presentation described Cornell University’s annual Summer Dairy Institute program for veterinary students, expects dairies will move primarily toward two models: niche or lifestyle dairies and large commercial productions. He expects divergence among dairy veterinarians into those providing rural, mixed animal practice and those in large-scale food supply medicine. Dr. Nydam does not expect long dairy-exclusive careers based solely on good clinical services, so the institute instructs veterinary students on varied topics such as economics and foreign cultures.

Dr. Mark J. Thomas of Lowville, N.Y., said that while veterinarians are receiving fewer calls to treat sick cows and perform surgeries, they can break their dependence on technical services and offer more value than they have in the past after taking advantage of training and research that is available to them.

Dr. Riddell said veterinarians who want to continue working for small herds can help them produce more valuable products, such as those sold as locally produced, organic, natural, or farmer-owner–processed.

However, Dr. Jim also said that veterinarians might have another opportunity in the near future, as he expected Canadian swine farms would soon trade at 10 percent of their normal price. If they hit that price, he expected that he himself would become a herd owner.