September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

A future in dairy veterinary practice?

By Jim Bennett- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

I have serious concerns about the future of my profession. I do not mean all veterinarians, just dairy practitioners.

Yes, we all have heard about the shortage of large animal veterinarians, and I know some of you live in areas where it may be difficult to get a dairy veterinarian on your farm. Yet, there is a shortage of rural, family physicians, too, and there has been for decades in many places. In spite of many efforts to solve this problem, many areas are still underserved by physicians in part because they cannot provide a physician the salary and lifestyle available in larger cities. Perceiving a need for service and being able to support that service in a way that successfully competes with other areas are two different things. We really have the same problem in food animal veterinary medicine. Young veterinarians will choose to work in areas that meet their lifestyle needs, and more and more, rural areas cannot compete.

Adding to the uncertainty for dairy veterinarians is the unrelenting need for dairy producers to produce more with less. Efficiency is king, and striving for it has led to fewer and fewer cows, and drastically fewer and fewer farms. Almost 85 percent of the Minnesota dairy farms in business when I graduated from veterinary school 29 years ago no longer milk cows. Larger farms use veterinarians less for technical tasks, and although they often do require more consulting services, they typically use veterinarians less on a per cow basis than smaller farms may have. The value of a cow today in real dollars is just a fraction of what it was 30 years ago. The result is that each veterinarian needs to have more and more cows within his or her practice to survive.

I am not complaining. I love my profession, and would not do anything else. I love working with larger farms, too, and have immensely enjoyed helping and watching my clients farms grow and increase their success over the years. Yet, I am certain that dairy veterinarians in the future will have to adapt to a changing environment to maintain their role as a valued asset to dairy farms.

There are dairy farms today that seldom use veterinarians and are quite happy with that arrangement. Still, I am confident that most farms will still see the benefit to employ a veterinarian in the future. The challenge for the dairy veterinarian of the future is to figure out just what that role will be, and how to get there.

I am part owner in a pet veterinary practice, and while they do not let me touch anyone's pet, I am aware of how the place runs. In this practice, certified veterinary technicians are utilized to perform many tasks that the doctors did in the past. One doctor can see more patients in a day by utilizing these trained professionals. Physicians, too, utilize other professionals more than in the past. Nurse practitioners and physicians assistants are often the primary care providers.

We can do the same thing in dairy practice, too, but it is somewhat more difficult. Veterinarian technicians are only allowed to perform certain tasks, and tasks must be done under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. This is fine in a clinic setting, but not so fine when one has to drive 20 miles to see the patient. Would dairy producers pay for a qualified veterinary technician to assist a cow calving, treat a milk fever or examine a sick cow? I think most would be happy to do so, assuming the outcome of the visit is good, and the cost for the technician is substantially less than for the veterinarian. However, state veterinary practice laws may prohibit technicians from providing some of these services without a veterinarian on the premises. For this scheme to work, some practice laws may need to be changed, and perhaps a new type of certification for technicians will be needed.

Dairy practitioners today are expected to know much more than their predecessors of 30 years ago. Record analysis, employee training, milking system analysis, and facilities design are some examples of things we do routinely that were unusual in the past. Large farms can have large problems, and a veterinarian can provide valuable help to solve them. Yet, the dairy veterinarian of the future cannot be all things to all farms, nor can they afford to price themselves out of work in trying to make a living.

It seems to me the best solution is to figure out how to leverage veterinarians' knowledge and expertise by using trained technical help. I can see a day where qualified veterinary paraprofessionals may provide the first line of care to a farm: examining sick cows or sore footed cows, administering vaccines or reproductive injections, treating certain emergency conditions such as milk fever, providing obstetrical assistance, examining cows in the fresh pen, collecting milk samples or performing milk cultures on farm, collecting feed samples, observing milking procedures, performing post mortem exams, managing drug inventory and more. Having the ability to transmit data wirelessly to a qualified veterinarian at another location may make things possible that were not in the past.

Dairy veterinarians exist only to serve you and to protect your animals' well being. By reworking how we practice we can continue to provide excellent value to you in the future. I also believe that "if we build it, they will come" - meaning that young veterinarians will be attracted to dairy practice. We just have to accept the challenge.

Jim Bennett is a dairy veterinarian at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at bennett[email protected] with comments or questions.[[In-content Ad]]


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