The Indispensable Veterinarian

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

These days, long-term viability in animal agriculture requires identifying and capitalizing on available efficiencies, while also conserving resources, protecting animal welfare and ensuring food safety and public health.

As livestock production becomes more complex, veterinarians are learning ways to go beyond traditional clinical services to provide more comprehensive, integrated consultation intended to improve profitability and long-term viability of client operations.

This year’s American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) conference followed a theme of “Become Indispensable,” with many of the presentations exploring ways practitioners can build their business by expanding services and helping clients become more successful.

That process requires the veterinarian to learn and practice new skills, but most importantly, it involves high-level communication between the producer and veterinarian, and in many cases, the most valuable service the veterinarian can provide involves solving problems or identifying opportunities about which the producer is unaware.

In a presentation titled “Flying Solo,” veterinarian Em Mowrer outlined how she built a solo practice in Southeastern Ohio, an area comprised mainly of small farmers who traditionally only called on a veterinarian when they had an animal-health emergency.

Starting “from scratch,” Mowrer says her first steps involved an honest assessment of her own abilities, strengths, weaknesses and professional goals, needs of local producers, services she wanted to provide and what she would need to effectively serve producers in the area. She quickly recognized a need for education regarding animal-health practices and particularly for prevention of disease or production problems, and area farmers were hungry for information. Her first client meeting attracted about 75 producers, many of whom had never attended such a meeting before, because they never had the opportunity.

She stressed a need for veterinarians to be available, follow up on farm calls, ask about the progress of animals you’ve treated and show interest in a client’s family. “They don’t care how much you know,” Mowrer says, “until they know how much you care.”

Colorado State University Extension Veterinarian Frank Garry encouraged veterinarians to “Focus on What Really Matters.” Veterinarians, he says, need to spend more time addressing clients’ big-picture goals. Simply treating sick or injured animals, while important, falls short in terms of meeting larger goals for animal health, performance and welfare. Those require an emphasis on prevention and monitoring. Veterinarians can build their practice while helping clients succeed by offering assistance with culling decisions, mortality diagnostics, proactive health monitoring, worker training and education, detailed protocols for vaccine and antibiotic use, herd additions and genetic selection, reproduction, animal welfare and more. “We create demand through education,” he says.

Long-time Purdue veterinarian Mark Hilton, now with Elanco Animal Health, led a presentation on how to “Keep Clients Asking for More.” Rather than just perfecting skills learned years ago, driving further and working longer hours to reach new clients, Hilton encourages veterinarians to do more with the clients they have. Often, he says, clients accustomed to limiting their veterinarian contact to emergencies do not realize how more in-depth veterinary consultations could benefit their businesses. “The most important step in developing a new service,” Hilton says, “is to offer it.”

Hilton advises veterinarians and clients to arrange a consultation visit that is separate from clinical visits. The veterinarian should ask clients about their business goals and dive deeply into the barriers preventing them from achieving those goals. “Listen to understand, not to respond,” he says.

Farmers and ranchers develop a natural affinity toward “Systems Thinking in Bovine Practice,” says John Groves, DVM, with Livestock Vet Services in Eldon, Missouri. They understand that agricultural production is a complex system, involving interactions between plants, animals, sunlight, soil, water, microbes and many other factors influencing outcomes. Systems thinking, as a means of problem solving, involves big-picture consideration of all those factors, instead of linear cause-and-effect thinking. Veterinarians, he says, can use systems thinking to engage client in long-term problem solving rather than simply reacting when problems arise.

For example, Groves cites a stocker operator experiencing a high morbidity rate, which the veterinarian attributes to poor preconditioning and weaning practices on the operations supplying the calves. Linear thinking might suggest paying lower prices for those calves in the future, but that approach does not truly solve the problem. Systems thinking would involve going back to the cow-calf herds, identifying weaknesses and instituting changes to improve calf health and immunity.

These and other discussions during the conference illustrated how, by working as partners, veterinarians and producers can position livestock operations for the future, with comprehensive programs for protecting animal health, welfare, safety and overall profitability.

For more on “becoming indispensable” from the AABP conference, see these articles on BovineVetOnline.com:

Focus on What Really Matters

Flying Solo

Keep Clients Asking for More

Systems Thinking in Bovine Practice

The Indispensable Power of Relationships

Contented Crew, Contented Animals

Bovine Practice: Well Positioned for the Future

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