Society has placed food safety and quality high on its list of concerns, and we must continue to respond to those concerns. “We start by communicating all of the good things veterinarians and the feedlot industry have done, and are doing,” says Bob Smith, DVM, Stillwater, Okla. There are many, and Smith, who has been involved in beef veterinary medicine for 30 years, should know.

“But beyond that, we must be willing to change as research defines new directions for us,” Smith explains. “Beef Quality Assurance must be on our minds every day as we work with cattle feeders.” Smith, who spent many years at Oklahoma State University and is now associated with the feedlot consultant group Veterinary Research and Consulting Services, Greeley, Colo., has also had the rare privilege being president of both the Academy of Veterinary Consultants (AVC) and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP).

Current AVC President Tom Edwards, DVM, agrees with Smith. “We’ve become more consumer conscious and beef-friendly,” he says. “Injection site blemishes are almost negligible and the guidelines for acceptable injection sites, volume limits and needle sizes are well-defined.” Edwards, of Midwest Feedlot Services, Inc., Kearney, Neb., is a second-generation bovine veterinarian.

Jessica Laurin, DVM, Animal Health Center, Marion, Kan., believes for the next 5-10 years the emphasis on ethanol production for renewable energy will change feedlot demographics. “Not only will there be a change in where growth in capacity will occur, but length of placement will be shortened,” she says.

Where are the opportunities?
Margins for feedlot owners have always been tight, and may be more so today. “As a result, there is tremendous opportunity to work with feedlots to optimize efficiency,” says Smith. “We must realize that management is more valuable than what comes in bottles, so today’s veterinarian must be well-versed in economics, animal husbandry, beef quality assurance, food safety, animal welfare, immunology, pathophysiology and medicine. We must be good trainers, educators, and motivators so that feedlot employees know their job, and have fire in their belly to ‘get ’er done,’ even when the days are long and the weather severe.” The veterinarian must also know enough about cattle feeding to communicate with the nutritionist, as nutrition and health go hand-in-hand.

“Our industry is slowly getting better at working between the different feeding sectors,” Laurin adds. “With better management systems, feedlot and cow-calf producers may be able to communicate and work together on pen health.” Laurin has experience working through the different beef sectors. The beef portion of her practice, which is at the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills, is divided about equally between cow-calf and stocker-backgrounder clients. 

Laurin believes cow-calf and feedlot veterinarians recognize, along with most producers they work for, that an animal that is comfortable and healthy will economically perform at higher levels than an animal that is neither. “We are not the spokesman for animal welfare, we are the ones who perform these acts on a daily basis, as a normal part of our veterinary activities.”

Since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the EU and the threat of bioterrorism, the industry has become more aware of the potential for the introduction of a foreign animal disease to the U.S. This has led to the formation of programs such as the Livestock Emergency Disease Response System. “These programs have helped each state to create a network of surveillance and information to be shared at the local, state and national level in the event of a threat or an outbreak of disease,” says Edwards, and is an opportunity for practitioners to get involved.

The beef veterinary community
Thirty-five years ago the AVC was founded by leaders in veterinary medicine, the organization has since fostered leadership traits in younger members and as a result still stands as a highly respected organization. “This group has great comradery,” Laurin says. “The AVC has allowed the networking of veterinarians among the different feeding sectors, which allows us to learn more about each sector and work together.”

“The veterinarians within the AVC have the highest regard for their profession, and strive each day to improve the quality and perception of the beef industry,” notes Edwards.

“This organization is made up of beef cattle veterinarians committed to excellence; they think out of the box, are proactive by solving potentially big problems while they are still small, and are frequently consulted by beef cattle organizations for help with big-time issues,” adds Smith.

Today’s responsibilities
Feedlot veterinarians practicing today are highly-trained, and the profession is committed to responsible drug use, animal welfare, and food safety. These topics are included in the agenda at every meeting of the AVC and AABP. “The consumer must understand that beef cattle veterinarians are consumers too,” Smith says, “and we have children and grandchildren just like urban dwellers. This helps us define our responsibilities and set our priorities.”

The feedlot veterinarian’s role is multi-faceted and encompasses a diverse range of responsibilities that include a safe and wholesome product to the consumer. “Veterinarians must promote and enforce humane animal care and production practices that are economically efficient and abide by Beef Quality Assurance guidelines,” states Edwards. “They work closely with producers to develop veterinary-client-patient-relationships allowing them to prescribe and recommend therapeutic regimens that meet defining criteria of the operation. It’s the veterinarian’s job to evaluate the health and performance of the cattle and make necessary adjustments based on observational, diagnostic or evidence-based research.”

We also have to do a better job of telling our story and be media savvy, says Smith. Veterinarians should continue to seek spokesperson, committee and leadership roles, not only in veterinary organizations, but also be willing to support beef industry initiatives when asked. “And let’s not overlook proficiency,” says Smith. “Today’s feeding industry demands our very best, so constant high-quality continuing education is imperative if we are to stay ahead of the game.” 

What are the issues?

Animal welfare: Bob Smith, DVM, believes it is imperative that feedlot veterinarians lead the charge to adopt the beef industry’s Recommendations for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle ( “The definition of ‘welfare’ is changing. We need to take charge of this issue, and if we do a good job, I believe mainstream consumers will be satisfied. We cannot please animal rights activists. But when we utilize a scientific, common sense approach to cattle care and handling, we will not have to apologize. We must be willing to adopt new practices when sound research defines new pathways for us.”

Jessica Laurin, DVM, has seen the personal side of animal welfare in the beef business. “I have had to euthanize cows for producers who could not do so themselves,” she explains. “Many beef producers become very attached to the animals they care for, and they get a true satisfaction in caring for the animals in their possession.”

  • Cost of production: Smith is concerned with the cost of beef production and its impact on clients’ profitability. “With ever-rising energy and commodity costs, we must pass this along to the consumer, or squeeze the cow-calf operator, and both of these have limits. We have decided to put our food in our fuel tanks, and at the same time the average consumer is facing some pretty high beef prices in the restaurant and the grocery store.”
  • Modern systems: Cattle feeding has become more sophisticated. There is a lot of information at our fingertips, and in the next five years the increased amount of information generated in feedlots each day will be phenomenal. Twenty years ago who would have imagined the use of electronic ID tags, ultrasound to define carcass characteristics, or that computers would be capturing animal health data, and feeding it back in report form with just a few keystrokes.
  • Advanced pharmaceuticals and tools: New, long-acting antibiotics have dramatically changed hospital management. The industry has shifted from running cattle through the hospital chute on a daily basis for treatment to running them through once for a long-acting antibiotic treatment.
  • Laurin adds that the development of the BVDV antigen-capture ELISA test in the past five years has added renewed interest in deciphering the questions of bovine pneumonia causes and treatments.
  • Cattle ownership changing: Corporate feedyards now own a larger proportion of the cattle inventory in their feedyard and there is less dependence on customer cattle. This practice allows more efficient utilization of feedlot capacity.
  • Feedlot employees: Though the ethnicity of feedlot employees has changed, one thing has not: “We still depend heavily on people to get the job done — pen riders, doctoring crews, processing teams — and we still can’t get along without them,” says Smith.
  • Food-animal veterinarians: With the existing shortage of food-animal practitioners, mixed-animal and food-animal practitioners are challenged to find willing and sustainable help in a rural practice, says Tom Edwards, DVM. “As food-animal practitioners, it’s imperative that we encourage veterinary medical colleges to actively recruit and retain potential food-animal veterinarians.”