Staying relevant in cattle care

AABP, Academy of Veterinary Consultants discuss changing profession, industry
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Dr. John U. Thomson told hundreds of cattle veterinarians and veterinary students that they need to provide veterinary care and education in ways that satisfy societal needs, or they will be replaced.

The dean at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine is particularly concerned that veterinarians have not generated data that demonstrate the profession's importance to protecting the food supply. Without the use of outcomes-based medicine to collect that evidence, he thinks society will meet its needs through other means, as exemplified by a law passed earlier this year that allows nonveterinarians in Oklahoma to perform many livestock care practices by classifying them as husbandry.

Beef cattle

In speeches, educational sessions, and group discussions, many of the livestock veterinarians who attended the combined Annual Conference of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and the Academy of Veterinary Consultants Summer Meeting showed concern about the need to maintain or explain veterinarians' relevance in beef and milk production.

About 1,200 veterinarians, veterinary students, and other attendees were at the meeting Aug. 19-21 in Albuquerque, N.M. Dr. Roger L. Saltman, now immediate past president of the AABP, said during the AABP's annual business meeting that the combined AABP and AVC convention was the realization of a dream. The profession is shrinking, and veterinarians need consensus, collaboration, and awareness to combat current challenges, he said.

Dr. John U. Thomson delivers the keynote speech during the AABP's annual conference Aug. 19 in Albuquerque, N.M.

Dr. Jerry Stokka, AVC president, also expressed hope and optimism that those in attendance have the strength to overcome obstacles facing the veterinary profession.

Dr. Thomson, the keynote speaker at the conference, further explained in a follow-up interview that veterinarians need to keep a presence on farms and show consumers the importance of having trained veterinarians who can protect animal health and public safety.

"We need to stand up and get veterinarians positioned into areas of responsibility for society's health, such as disease traceability, such as antibiotic usage, such as animal welfare," he said. "And if we don't, nobody else is going to do it. The people that have to understand where a veterinarian fits into the food chain are the consumers, and right now, I don't think they do."

While the Oklahoma law Dr. Thomson spoke of received attention largely for allowing laypersons to perform equine dentistry, it also edited the state's veterinary practice act to state that veterinarians are not required for the care, breeding, and management of farm animals. An Iowa bill that was introduced in February but failed to move out of committee would have similarly allowed laypersons to perform more livestock health care practices. Dr. Thomson questions what role veterinarians will have in managing the health of farm animals if routine animal care is removed from state veterinary practice acts.

Practicing, teaching, or consulting?

Some of the conference speakers questioned the role veterinarians have in routine cattle care versus instruction or management of farm employees.

Dr. Tom Fuhrmann of Tempe, Ariz., said he doubted that many of the veterinarians attending his educational session were frequently called to treat cattle illnesses and that they may better influence animal health and continue earning income by shifting toward work as animal care teachers or consultants. He suspects most sick cattle are treated by on-farm workers, whereas veterinarians tend to be involved in reproductive programs, ultrasound use, the occasional emergency, and vaccinations.

Veterinarians can train farm workers how to examine animals, identify diseases, and treat illnesses, Dr. Fuhrmann said. And as consultants, they can influence farm employee decisions, engage owners in ethical discussions regarding animal welfare issues, and improve herdsmen's understanding on topics such as sources of lameness and effective treatments.

Another speaker indicated farm employees are not alone in expanding into services covered by veterinarians.

Animal care services are frequently performed by the lowest bidder, particularly in the Texas Panhandle, Dr. Alfred Harper of Dublin, Texas, said. Veterinarians face challenges not only from lay farm employees who are learning to perform surgery through instructions available online but also from pharmaceutical distributors willing to sell prescription animal drugs to laypersons and equipment sellers willing to provide care advice.

Yet some producers are returning to veterinarians for services after less success with other providers, Dr. Harper said. He encouraged veterinarians to define a niche through services they are better qualified than nonveterinarians to perform and through follow-up on treatments. And he encouraged veterinarians to expand their knowledge, staff, and geographic coverage, stressing that nonveterinarians in agriculture are trying to expand their services.

Dr. Wade Taylor of Oakley, Kan., encouraged instruction of farm employees on proper animal handling and welfare, including proper exercise. He also said veterinarians can help design facilities that encourage cattle movement without the need for electric shocks or use of dogs, and they can become more deeply involved in food safety, particularly as requirements for animal source identification prior to interstate movement are implemented.

Dr. Taylor encouraged those in attendance to question whether a given service or treatment would help their clients stay in business. Data collected on treatments should not be used just to justify actions, but to improve those treatments.

Production and welfare

In a group discussion on animal welfare, some veterinarians voiced the view that in adopting policies or practices, the profession needs to exercise care to avoid conflicts with the producers who hire veterinarians.

Dr. Max B. Irsik, who represents the AABP on the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, said welfare committee members have discussed whether the AVMA should develop a welfare policy on hot-iron branding and freeze-branding. The current AVMA Policy on Livestock Identification recommends that "a high priority be placed on using alternatives to hot-iron branding."

But Dr. Irsik said hot-iron branding is critical to the cattle industry, and he does not think a viable alternative exists. He expects that, if AVMA policy were to oppose the practice, Western producers would ignore the policy.

He also argued that hot-iron branding provides more permanent proof of ownership than other means of identification do.

Dr. Cia Johnson, assistant director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, said she understood the arguments in favor of hot-iron branding but that the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee is considering available and future alternatives that could reduce animals' pain and distress. For example, she noted that some evidence indicates freeze-branding is less painful for animals.

But Dr. James W. Furman of Alliance, Neb., argued that hot-iron branding of beef calves, even when performed in conjunction with other procedures such as vaccination, can be finished far more quickly than freeze-branding and without use of a steel calf cradle, possibly reducing stress and opportunities for calf injuries.

Dr. Johnson also said that, because the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee is considering a potential welfare policy, any recommendations it would make would focus on animal welfare concerns.

Dr. Doug E. Link, of Vassar, Mich., said that, with the implementation of electronic identification methods, producers will be able to wave a wand and process animals more quickly than ever before. He added after the meeting that, because of electronic identification, branding is becoming a nonissue, and he thinks state veterinarians will approve the use of tags in place of brands.

Veterinarians also discussed state laws that require hot-iron branding of cattle in specific situations, the possibility that veterinarians will need to help producers find alternative practices if advocacy groups push to ban hot-iron branding, and the possibility that electronic identification systems might not work for Western beef producers.

Following the meeting, Dr. Furman, noting the change in Oklahoma's veterinary practice act, expressed concern about the veterinary profession taking actions unpopular with livestock owners. He said many producers want veterinary medical practices to be considered animal husbandry, which could discourage veterinarians from entering food animal and equine practice.

"It behooves us that we don't tie our own hands as a profession and alienate the producer," Dr. Furman said. He further explained that veterinarians need to make producers see that working for the welfare and benefit of animals also benefits producers.

Keeping a presence on farms

Dr. Thomson, in his keynote speech and a second presentation, advocated for increased knowledge sharing among academics and veterinarians on farms. He said the latter could receive the latest scientific knowledge from academics and, in return, give back information on treatment outcomes.

"We've lacked some of that information in the past, and that's the reason it's been difficult for us to stand up and truly show people where veterinary medicine has addressed and continues to address welfare issues; the health and well-being of the animals through proper antibiotic distribution, monitoring, and use; and all of the other areas that impact the quality of the food, the health of humans and animals, and the environment," Dr. Thomson said.

But if the public associates other professions—such as microbiologists and government inspectors—with food safety rather than veterinarians, the profession is at risk of losing its role in protecting public and animal health, he said. Some people are pushing to move on-farm practices out of veterinary practice acts, and he said veterinarians need to prove their relevance.

Award winners from the 43rd Annual Conference of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners will be announced in the Nov. 1 issue of JAVMA.