Diversification becoming harder for veterinarians amidst a more technical food animal industry
As the food animal industry becomes more technical, it is becoming harder for veterinarians to diversify into different livestock species. Although it is a good idea for veterinarians to be diversified, especially in rural areas, it is hard to be a beef cattle and a dairy veterinarian, plus swine and poultry, according to Dr. Christine Navarre.
Navarre, who is an extension veterinarian and a professor at the School of Animal Science at Louisiana State University, discussed the highlights of research that was recently completed on the impact of recruitment and retention of food animal veterinarians on the U.S. food supply. “COVID really put public health at the forefront of things. Veterinarians are at the forefront of public health, food safety, animal reform, animal welfare, pasture to plate, research, safety and food inspection,” she said. “They are critical to maintaining the financial stake of producers in the U.S. If we had a foreign animal disease that would impact the livestock, poultry or aquaculture industries similar to COVID, it would be financially devastating to this country.”.
Most people in the general population think of veterinarians protecting their pets, protecting animal health and welfare, and alleviating animal suffering. Not everyone thinks about what other areas food animal veterinarians are involved with, like conservation of animal resources and promotion of public health. “We need to make sure the public is aware of what all veterinarians do, and it isn’t just protecting your pets,” she said.
When research was conducted to study why recruiting and retaining food animal veterinarians is so difficult, they looked at supply and demand issues, and underlying reasons why there aren’t veterinarians in some areas. With vertical integration becoming more prevalent in food animals and some producers going out of business, the need for veterinarians is being impacted. “The question is, do we need so many veterinarians per animal, per farming or ranching operation, or based on animal density? We just don’t know what that metric density is, because it differs by geographic area and animal species,” Navarre said. “The problem is we need to understand the demand out there before we can think about recruiting and retaining veterinarians. Training veterinarians is costly and time consuming. We need to ensure there is a demand out there before we expend those resources toward recruitment and teaching.”
Every geographic area will have different needs. The poultry industry is mostly vertically integrated. The beef cow calf sector is spread out throughout the U.S., since the USDA average is 25-40 cows per producer. For bovine veterinarians, the expectations over the next 20 years are continued consolidation and more vertical integration within the industry, which could mean less veterinary needs for beef cattle, Navarre said, referring to an article in the January 2020 issue of Bovine Veterinarian.
Food animal veterinarians need to do a better job selling their value to clients. “A lot of veterinarians are seen as a cost, instead of as a partner that could help (the producers) make money,” Navarre said. Of all the expenditures in cattle production, 4 percent are attributed to veterinary expenses. If they cut that back, it doesn’t have a strong impact on their bottom line, but if there is an outbreak of herd disease, it could become quite costly.
Despite consolidation in some parts of the food animal industry, there is a movement toward more backyard farming. More people are raising chickens and selling eggs. Navarre said food animal veterinarians in many of these areas may not have experience with poultry, and these backyard farmers may not have access to a food animal veterinarian.
The solution is to better educate people, including producers and the public. “We need to do a better job matching our services to the needs of the producers,” Navarre said. “There are fewer and fewer food animal veterinarians and small animal veterinarians who have any agricultural background. Some of our colleagues are just as susceptible as the public about the misinformation that comes out. We need to do a better job of educating everyone,”
The problem is with funding. Research dollars have fallen off at college and research facilities, and instructors at veterinary colleges are finding themselves stretched to the brink of covering classes that are needed to prepare veterinary students for a career in a diverse business. “There is an erosion of food animal education at veterinary colleges that is very concerning,” she said. “There are not enough instructors to teach everything. Multi-species training is what makes us relevant to public health. We need to make sure and maintain that, even though that training has been severely curtailed in college. In addition, there is not enough training available for people going into research. We are just not replacing ourselves fast enough,” she added.
Navarre recommends veterinary students take advantage of everything out there. Because of the pandemic, some changes have been made. “There are a lot of opportunities available now that weren’t there before,” Navarre said. “Integration of funding is one of our biggest barriers, and figuring out how to share resources across colleges and state lines. We need to find ways to break down some of those barriers.” ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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