Swine veterinarians assess challenges to industry, practice

Speakers at AASV annual meeting emphasize need for unity across disciplines
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The future of swine medicine involves more than "bugs and drugs" as public attention increases on antimicrobial use and animal welfare, Dr. Kerry Keffaber said.

Dr. John U. Thomson stressed the need for swine veterinarians to collaborate across disciplines to secure their futures.

Dr. Keffaber, the immediate past president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, and Dr. Thomson, dean of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, were among the speakers at the AASV's 40th Annual Meeting who focused on the challenges and opportunities facing swine practitioners and the pork industry.

AASV convention attendees
Dr. Annette Gass-Cofre, Rotthalmuenster, Germany, and Alberto Aguilera, Intervet Schering Plough, talk during a break between sessions on the last day of the AASV convention in Dallas.

More than 1,000 people, including about 140 veterinary students, attended the conference March 7-10 in Dallas. Attendance remained about level with the preceding year, and more than a quarter of those present were from outside the U.S.

The conference theme was "Securing Our Future," and the program included lectures on economic concerns, employee issues, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, swine influenza virus, and collaboration with veterinarians across specialties.

Dr. Thomson said collaboration needs to result in validation and sharing of best practices for outcomes-based medicine "that meets or exceeds society's expectation for healthy pigs, healthy people, and a healthy planet."

Dr. Thomson advocated leadership through new tools, new infrastructure, and new ways of thinking. He said counterparts in human medicine and academia have collaborated to shorten the time for research findings to be used in practice.

"Our current peer review process creates a painfully slow avenue to application," Dr. Thomson said.

Improving the profession

Other lecturers talked about what veterinarians can do to improve their practices from within. Dr. Lawrence D. Firkins, University of Illinois, emphasized how practice owners can inspire staff to help their businesses thrive.

He said those who trust their employers, feel safe in their jobs, and want their employers to succeed tend to be more productive and less mistake-prone than colleagues who are not engaged in the business. Dr. Firkins said that if veterinarians are not leading their organizations, then the chances are that "no one else is, either."

Tell employees how the business is faring in realistic terms, make sure they know how their work contributes to its success, identify ways they can help, and recognize what they consider to be successes in their jobs, Dr. Firkins said. Other simple measures, such as finding out what names employees prefer to go by, can increase their engagement.

Dr. Joseph F. Connor of Carthage Veterinary Clinic, Carthage, Ill., advised veterinarians to stop thinking of themselves as consultants. Functioning as a consultant can inhibit decision making when veterinarians feel a need to list multiple options and the advantages and disadvantages of each, he said.

He also encouraged swine practitioners to identify areas of competence and interest that will allow them to provide niche services, to serve as mentors, to become comfortable soliciting second opinions outside their own practices, to make sure they spend time in clients' pig barns, and to help recent graduates set up plans for development.

Practitioners also need to consider animal welfare in health management, Dr. Thomson said, not only because it is humane but also because of the public reaction to practices such as those used to euthanize livestock.

"It is nearly impossible to kill a living creature and make it appear acceptable," Dr. Thomson said. "The more inhumane it is, the more repulsive it is to watch."

"And I'm sure this is going to be emphasized in the documentary on 'Death on a Factory Farm,'" he said, referring to a documentary that was scheduled to air a week later on HBO.

Public criticism has also led to increased requirements for transparency in human medical care, and Dr. Thomsom thinks people will eventually expect the same from veterinary care providers. He advocated creating an open-source approach to veterinary medicine—like a practice "wiki"—through which information would be shared.

Dr. Kerry Keffaber, immediate past president of the AASV; Dr. Rodney "Butch" Baker, president; Dr. Paul D. Ruen, president-elect; and Dr. Randy Jones, vice president

Openly sharing findings and expertise helps the profession, he said. In trying to feed a growing global population, veterinarians also need to help the public understand changes required to increase production.

"We need to assist society in appreciating that intensification and industrialization of livestock is inevitable," Dr. Thomson said.

During the annual business meeting on the conference's last day, Dr. James O. Cook, AVMA president, encouraged collaboration between the AVMA and AASV on governmental issues. He also talked about the need to increase salaries of those entering the profession and animal welfare activism's impact on livestock industries.

Dr. Cook said he knows swine veterinarians are concerned about animal welfare issues, particularly given that Ohio has been targeted for measures similar to those passed in California that will require changes in animal housing systems by 2015. He said the public needs education on farm practices because lack of exposure to animal agriculture has left them with an "innocent ignorance."

Dr. W. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO, said in a presentation that the livestock industry is facing dramatic, challenging times that come with unique opportunities. Demand for meat is increasing at the same time as societal issues could hurt growth, he said.

The industry is changing as family farms consolidate and the U.S. population shifts toward cities and suburbs, Dr. DeHaven said. People several generations removed from farms are disconnected from farming practices, and they are increasingly associating animals with pets rather than food.

Dr. DeHaven cited images of abuse captured from a Chino, Calif., slaughterhouse in warning attendees not to underestimate the power of a single event replayed repeatedly for the public. It is difficult to overcome a 30-second sound bite with proactive education, but veterinary oversight and public education can increase public trust and understanding of the livestock industry, he said.

Dr. DeHaven also said the status quo is not acceptable.

"We need to be pushing for constant change and improvement," Dr. DeHaven said.

The profession enjoys an advantage of trust, and coalitions can inform the public about the positive changes in meat production industries, he said. Such collaboration and advocacy can, "influence what veterinary medicine will be decades into the future."

Industry insight

Some speakers assessed hardships in the pork industry and how they could impact veterinarians.

One such speaker, Larry Pope, CEO of Smithfield Foods, said he worries the pork industry is "addicted" to exports, with more than 20 percent of the past year's production shipped outside the U.S. He gave a somber assessment of an industry in "severe crisis" but said countries such as Romania and Poland have been harder hit because of drought in addition to worldwide economic declines.

Pope said countries such as Russia are erecting trade barriers for U.S. pork, and China is a fickle market even though it consumes 53 percent of the world's pork. He also cited animal welfare activists and the U.S. ethanol policy's effect on corn prices as stressors to the industry.

The pork industry still has demand from consumers who want animal protein, Pope said. However, oversupply of pork is going to hinder prices in the immediate future, and drought or other weather events could hurt producers through increased grain prices.

Reactions among attendees

Abigail Redalen and Evan Von Beusekom, first-year veterinary students at the University of Minnesota, were among students who attended conference educational sessions. Redalen said veterinarians at the conference were friendly and welcoming to her and her fellow students, some of whom are unsure whether they will pursue careers in swine medicine.

Von Beusekom hoped to meet contacts for a research project. The ideas and tests in some sessions were beyond him at this point, but some he attended on production were immediately applicable, he said.

Dr. Rich Collins, a conference attendee from Dixon, Ill., said that he and other swine veterinarians are always trying to improve their skills and the health of their clients' pigs. He said swine veterinarians work not just with pigs but also with people, helping employees in their clinics and on their clients' farms do their jobs.

"It's a people business," he said.

Leaders take office

Dr. Rodney "Butch" Baker, Ames, Iowa, became the AASV's 40th president during the conference (see profile).

Dr. Randy Jones, Kinston, N.C., became vice president. Dr. Paul Ruen, Fairmont, Minn., is the new president-elect. Dr. Keffaber, North Manchester, Ind., became the immediate past president.

For AASV awards, see page story.