December 01, 2012


 Pushing for dialogue on cattle practice’s future

​Dr. Nigel B. Cook is 2012-2013 AABP president

Posted Nov. 19, 2012
 Dr. Nigel B. Cook (Courtesy of Thomas Bennett​)
Dr. Nigel B. Cook wants to kick-start discussion about how veterinarians work with cattle-owning clients.

Dairy and beef herds are becoming larger, and veterinarians need new ways to remain relevant. Dr. Cook wants the American Association of Bovine Practitioners to help veterinarians develop new and desired services and to subsequently make enough money that new graduates can pay off increasingly high educational debts.

Dr. Cook, a clinical associate professor of 13 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, started his one-year term as AABP president in September in Montreal. In an interview with JAVMA, he described his career, the challenges facing bovine medicine, and his hopes for the coming year.

Dr. Cook grew up in the U.K. city of Birmingham, watching James Herriot episodes on Sunday nights and camping in farmers’ fields on weekends with his uncle. In high school, he shadowed veterinarians who worked in small animal practice, which was his focus when he began attending the University of Bristol Veterinary School.

Dr. Cook shifted toward cattle practice with inspiration from faculty mentors such as Dr. John Webster as well as from a private practitioner who brought him to various farms and showed him “how much fun being a food animal vet could be.”

Dr. Cook joined a 16-person practice in Salisbury, Wiltshire, shortly after graduating in mid-1992, the peak of the nation’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis. Beyond identifying BSE-infected animals, he got to work with veterinarians who focused on alternatives to “fire brigade” work, instead making routine visits to provide services such as health and nutrition advice, fertility work, mastitis consulting, and hoof care.

“It was great for me to join a practice that, at that time, was really thinking forward and realizing that emergency work was not going to be able to sustain us, and I had a great four years there,” Dr. Cook said.

He left private practice to help run the large animal ambulatory clinic at the Royal Veterinary College in London before taking a job at UW’s Madison campus.

Dr. Cook sees a long-term challenge in maintaining the supply of people interested in becoming cattle veterinarians as educational costs escalate without a matching rise in starting salaries.

Students who attended the AABP conference in September told Dr. Cook that they learned how veterinary care was changing on larger farms and how that care differed from their perceptions of veterinary medicine when they entered veterinary school.

“We have a lot of kids who want to do individual cow or small ruminant work, and we all get a kick out of treating milk fevers and surgically fixing displaced abomasums,” he said. “But, increasingly, that’s not going to be our role in larger herds.”

Veterinarians will still perform individual health care for smaller herds, which endure despite predictions of their impending demise, Dr. Cook said. But work for larger clients has to move beyond routine palpations.

Some veterinary colleges are preparing students for that future, but all are operating with shrinking budgets, fewer faculty members, and diminishing resources, he said.

“I think fewer and fewer North American vet schools are able to teach to the level we would like to see for dairy and beef practice, and so I think you’re seeing the emergence of institutions that can carry that load and others that will struggle,” Dr. Cook said.

Dr. Nigel B. Cook closes the business and awards luncheon Sept. 22 at the 45th Annual Conference of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. (Photo by Greg Cima​)
Not all students will be able to get the best veterinary education for their focus area in their home states, he said, noting that such students will bear the added cost of out-of-state tuition.

In addition, veterinarians already in practice will face challenges as they try to wrest leadership on animal welfare away from behaviorists and animal scientists, Dr. Cook said.

“We’re in danger of being irrelevant in a subject that we should own, and animal welfare should be the front-and-center of what we do on our farms, of ensuring the well-being of cattle under our care,” Dr. Cook said.

He thinks more veterinarians need to think of themselves as leaders on welfare.

“We have to be the person who advocates for the cow,” he said.

Dr. Cook also wants the veterinary profession to examine its practice models and how it delivers services
for cattle owners, whether veterinarians practice in the manner of physicians, consultants, or facilitators. For example, he cited a presentation during the AABP conference that described facilitative work such as filtering advice for owners of large herds and studying the effects of following that advice.

Each veterinarian in cattle practice likely can use multiple practice models suited to needs of small or large herds, Dr. Cook said.

“But you’re certainly going to see the emergence of larger, more organized clinics that really go after a different type of practice model” that improves their ability to serve clients with larger herds, he said.

The AABP also is developing best management practices for veterinary practice, a project that Dr. Cook wants to continue based on work started by his predecessor, Dr. Brian Gerloff.

“It’s going to take a huge effort from our issues committees and from our board of directors to try to make sure we have a unified position on many of the things that are welfare concerns and management concerns—from castration to dehorning to weaning to transport to drug use,” he said.

Dr. Cook thinks cattle veterinarians need to say “This is what we expect,” and “These are the ways we need to practice” to gain leadership in animal welfare and develop a sustainable practice model.