Be essential to thrive in cattle practice

Cattle veterinarians describe ways to meet changing client demands
Published on October 31, 2018

Dr. W. Mark Hilton said veterinarians who have good technical skills may still be replaceable.

Those who know their clients' goals may be indispensable.

Dr. Hilton, a senior technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health, told a crowd of cattle veterinarians they will learn better and foster better relationships by asking more questions. When talking with people on farms and ranches, listen to understand rather than respond, he said.

Veterinarian on the farm with dairy cattle


In a presentation at the American Association of Bovine Practitioners meeting Sept. 13-15 in Phoenix, Dr. Hilton recommended his colleagues create demand for advice, be exhaustive in their work, and provide products and services specific to each client.

Speakers at the meeting described ways veterinarians can improve demand for their services. Dr. Glenn Rogers, who was the conference program chair and became AABP president during the meeting (see story), said he hoped the meeting would help attendees increase their value to clients and show them how to demonstrate that value.

Know your clients

Dr. Morgan McArthur said veterinarians are good at collecting and connecting information to solve problems, but building relationships and coaching clients are the secrets to becoming essential.

He said that, in human medicine, miscommunication is the most frequent cause of malpractice claims. And receiving questions feels good for clients, he said.

Dr. McArthur
Dr. Morgan McArthur describes ways veterinarians could challenge themselves and become essential to clients at the American Association of Bovine Practitioners meeting this September in Phoenix. (Photo by Greg Cima)

Dr. McArthur, who was the 1994 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, also recommended that veterinarians get leadership training from organizations such as Toastmasters International. And he encouraged veterinarians to consider other perspectives and connect with everyone on the farm team.

"As much as we love comfort, we don't learn much and grow much when we're comfortable," Dr. McArthur said.

Dr. David Brennan, a mixed animal veterinarian in Ohio, said rural veterinarians have shifted from treating sick animals, which farmers want to do on their own, to acting as managers and consultants who can give clients the protocols and monitoring they want. Veterinarians can show clients where to invest to save money, how to design facilities for cow comfort, and what services they can offer.

Clinic owners also need to maintain updated facilities and practices that are attractive to associates and set fees that reflect professional services.

Dr. Franklyn B. Garry, an extension veterinarian for Colorado State University, said veterinarians have the education and knowledge to explore, investigate, identify, and monitor health issues, as well as educate others and develop creative solutions. They can examine why cows are culled on dairies and why many culled cows arrive at slaughterhouses with major bruises.

Death losses are the most costly causes of herd removal, Dr. Garry said, yet they are poorly tracked in the dairy industry. Clinical disease can be just the tip of the iceberg, with many other cows at risk for the same outcome.

Veterinarians can conduct necropsies and teach others how to do them. Knowing how a cow dies requires investigation, yet, he said, veterinarians or others perform necropsies on only about 5 percent of cows that die on dairies.

Just as veterinarians drift from protocols, so will farm workers, he said. But coaching helps them make good decisions.

Meet client goals

Dr. Arne Anderson once needed a taxi from his hotel to the airport after a presentation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Hotel staff told him taxis wouldn't come so far to pick him up—even though one had dropped him off—and they recommended the ride-sharing service Uber.

He said his grandmother grew her own food, and his associate veterinarians have boxes of ingredients delivered to their door.

Dr. Anderson said rural communities need veterinary care, and veterinarians need to offer their services in the ways potential clients want them. Cattle owners have master's degrees, and they expect more than a bottle of medicine.

Veterinarians need to use their knowledge and show clients the differences between their services and those offered by their competitors.

"You should be more expensive," he said. "You are going to make them money."

Meredyth Jones, a veterinary clinical sciences faculty member at the Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, said the world is full of people willing to just give animals injections rather than find the sources of problems. Veterinarians are distinct in their ability to find usable diagnoses and solve problems affecting herds.

Dr. Jones has a pattern for each physical examination, and she recommends that veterinarians develop their own patterns that can help them avoid missing signs that could change their diagnoses. A ruminant with blindness, for example, may have central blindness from polioencephalomalacia or lead toxicosis or peripheral blindness from vitamin A deficiency, and treatment requires using pupillary light response to determine which diagnosis is right.

Discovering disease in one animal can show the risk to a herd, Dr. Jones said.

"This animal just was the one that showed you what everyone else needed," she said.

Dr. Jones recommended writing reports for clients, focusing on one or two recommendations, and planning to fix more deficiencies later. And clients appreciate the commitment shown by follow-up calls.

John T. Groves, owner of Livestock Veterinary Service in Eldon, Missouri, said changing one element on a farm can set off a complex chain reaction.

Treating sick calves on a farm, for example, may improve survival rate, he said. But the client may see the health improvement as an opportunity to buy more calves, which brings more disease challenges, stretches the abilities of workers, and creates more illness on the farm.

Veterinarians can see trends and patterns, and they need to understand what drives them. The more they learn about a client's farm, the more influence they have over changes to come.

Related JAVMA content:

Stay essential by protecting selves, others (Nov. 15, 2018)