What does a great relationship between a veterinarian and livestock owner look like? Regardless of whether you are a livestock owner or a veterinarian, we can all agree that this relationship is critical for success in animal health and, done right, this relationship can be rewarding for both parties and the animals. I set out to get the veterinarian’s perspective on what makes this relationship successful from their perspective by surveying a group of several hundred rural large animal veterinarians. I received many responses, almost all of which fell into ten themes.
- Please be organized and have your plans set when we arrive to work cattle, whether we are helping process calves, pregnancy checking cows or fertility testing bulls. Make sure that all farm personnel are on the same page and have one person designated to make decisions. Even seemingly little things like already having tags made, having records at the chute, and knowing where the open cows will go out of the chute is important. This really helps us to be efficient and saves you money, as most of us charge for our time to be on a ranch.
- Please have the animal or animals we are seeing caught up and ready to go when we arrive. This may seem like it falls under being organized above and it does, but this is so critical that it deserves its own category. Your animals may be easy to get up for you most of the time but when they see us and our unfamiliar trucks, all bets are off. Gathering the herd without our presence will be much smoother than after our arrival. Even down animals need to be restrained. Down animals should have a rope or halter placed on them and be tied to an immobile object, like a tractor. Although this may seem unnecessary, every veterinarian has abundant stories of down cows that jumped up and ran off when we pulled up, sometimes ending in serious injury to the animal due to their unsteadiness.
- Please try to provide a safe working environment. This includes both equipment and animal factors. Having working pens, alleyways and chutes that are well designed and maintained helps ensure the safety of the animal and people who will be in and around the facility. Cattle that are regularly worked with in a calm and quiet manner are much safer to work around than those who are handled by chasing, yelling, or with excessive hot shot use. Many ranchers will only process cattle a few days per year total, while a veterinarian spends weeks at a time processing animals all day, every day. That results in a significant amount of wear and tear on our bodies, which is a common cause of early retirement in veterinarians or shifting into alternate areas, such as small animal work. Always have a way to safely restrain animals.
- Please call us for routine work, not just emergencies. As you are likely aware, most veterinarians are currently overwhelmed with work and are not taking emergency calls from people who are not regular clients. This can leave you in a real bind if you don’t have an established, daytime relationship with a veterinarian. Another benefit to this kind of relationship is that we can help to establish treatment protocols on your ranch which can significantly reduce your veterinary costs over a year. The vast majority of emergencies we see after hours could be avoided if the livestock owner had been regularly working with a veterinarian to implement a plan for prevention. There is also a larger issue to consider too; veterinarians cannot remain economically viable on emergency work only. This is one of the many reasons for the apparent shortages of large animal veterinarians in certain locations. Many towns or regions want a veterinarian but have been historically not been willing to pay them for routine services and now find themselves without veterinary care at all.
- Please call us early for suspected emergencies. Even with the best plans in place emergencies will happen. If you think a heifer may calve in the evening, call and give us a heads up before 5. It may seem like a small thing, but calling us early gives us a chance to understand the situation, perhaps give you some coaching, and help you know when to make the decision that intervention is needed. Our goal is always to get the best possible outcome for any sick animal. Getting us involved, even by phone, as early as possible greatly increases the chances of timely action and a positive outcome.
- Understand the beef industry and your role in it. If you are a cow-calf operator, your calves move forward to the stocker/backgrounder phase and then move into the feedlot and finally the processor. Simple enough. Most everyone understands this. What gets underappreciated, however, is that the success of the industry as a whole rides on the performance of these animals at each step of the journey. If a calf leaves the cow-calf sector without strong immunity to diseases due to inadequate nutrition, having parasites, or lacking proper vaccinations, it costs the industry in lost performance at the next phase. And on up the chain it goes. It can be easy to look at things like preconditioning and say, “I’ve tried it and I didn’t get paid for it so I’m not going to do it.” There is a larger picture here and an opportunity to be committed to doing the right thing. And, there are ways to get paid for it. Be invested in what happens to your animals in each phase of the cycle and the impact that has on animal welfare, food quality, and industry reputation.
- Please share your vaccination and deworming plans for your herd and give us an opportunity to advise you. You may be surprised to know that selling vaccines and dewormers is not a profit center for us, so we are able to advise you with less bias towards certain companies or certain products. Lots of people are more than happy to give you advice about how to care for your cattle. I was once called into a situation where heavy steers were dying on pasture suddenly. We went out and examined the dead steers and quickly determined they had died of blackleg. The owner, for many years under the advice of his local veterinarian, had always vaccinated against blackleg. That was until that year when someone at the sale barn told him he didn’t need to vaccinate his calves and that they themselves never vaccinated their cattle against blackleg. Armed with that advice and a desire to shave some costs, he didn’t vaccinate that year and lost thousands and thousands of dollars in dead steers. It’s an extreme example, yes, but highlights the need to be sure that you’re getting your information from someone with perspective on what diseases are present in your area and who has your economic viability as their top priority.
- Understand the Veterinary-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR). You may say, “Isn’t that what this whole article is about?” Well, kind of. The VCPR is more than just how the veterinarian and client relate to each other, it is actually a legally defined relationship that is required to be in place in order for a veterinarian to provide you with prescription drugs. There are several components to this relationship, including that the veterinarian has made a preliminary diagnosis, is available for followup, has a working knowledge of the animal’s environment and care and ensures that appropriate drug withdrawals are observed. It is regular event for veterinarians to have clients get frustrated with us that we won’t just sell a bottle of a prescription drug. A VCPR can be established in different ways, including in-person visits to a ranch at regular intervals, written protocols for disease identification and treatment on the farm, and seeing an individual sick animal and making a diagnosis. This is another time where having a regular, daylight relationship with your veterinarian can really save you time and money in the long run.
- Please understand when we are asking lots of questions, we are doing so to really understand your operation – your goals, your challenges, your herd health plan, and how you operate. This not only helps us to get to the bottom of a problem when you have one, but it helps us to help you develop plans that are specific to your place and your herd. When you ask us to look at one sick cow and we start asking questions that may not initially make sense or may seem redundant, understand that we are trying to get both the big picture of the situation as well as the small details of the case and your observations. I can promise you we have a reason for every question we ask and that reason isn’t that we are just being nosy! We are not fishing for things we think you’re doing wrong so we can criticize. We really are just looking to get you a resolution to a problem and a plan to prevent another one.
- Please share your nutrition program with us. There is a myth that veterinarians do not get any nutrition training. This isn’t the case and, in fact, nutrition is expanding in most veterinary curriculums. As with any professional, there are those of us who may have a stronger interest nutrition than others, just like there are accountants that have a stronger interest in corporate taxes than personal taxes. Most veterinarians do not have the intent to overhaul your feeding program. Rather, understanding your feeding goals and program can really help give us perspective on other aspects of your herd health plan: the ability of animals to respond to vaccines and disease exposures, fertility in the herd, the risk for parasite problems. Nutrition is not only your biggest cost, but it is also foundational to everything else in the herd.
At the end of the day, we want to serve you. That has become more challenging recently with the overload that most veterinarians are experiencing. You may have been recently frustrated with a delay in being able to get a veterinarian scheduled. I don’t know a single veterinarian who wants to sit in the clinic when someone really needs us. As you know there are less and less of us to go around and many veterinarians are one-man or one-woman shows. We appreciate your patience in this.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. As a livestock owner and producer, what do you want from your veterinarian to make for a successful relationship? I’d love to get enough feedback from you for a future article and to share with my colleagues. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I promise, I will read every single one!