The industry is abuzz right now over the issue of a lack of food animal veterinarians for the future. And while there is concern over this, there are also opportunities for those who are up to the task. These three veterinary organization leaders share their thoughts on food animal veterinarians now and in the future.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST challenges facing food animal veterinarians?

American Association of Bovine Practitioners President John Ferry, DVM, Belleville, N.Y., believes there are three main challenges facing the dairy veterinary industry. One is finding associates. “As the industry consolidates and the larger dairies hire in-house veterinarians, private practitioners will lose income but still be expected to provide emergency service to their remaining clients,” he says. “The shrinking client base will exacerbate the ability to fairly pay associates who will still be expected to do emergency work.” Ferry adds that this situation will lead to veterinarians being replaced with less-educated people, which will leave the industry frightfully vulnerable to foreign animal disease.

John Mayer, DVM, Midlands Consulting, Neola, Iowa, and president of the Academy of Veterinary Consultants, concurs that consolidation is also a factor in the beef industry. Fewer people and companies will control more of the cattle. “I personally have seen changes in one-third of my clients in the last year due to sale of yard, management changes and consolidation,” says Mayer. “Fewer veterinarians will be directing health programs for the majority of the fed cattle in this country. Labor resources in the feeding industry will continue to be a challenge.”

The recent Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition (FSVMC)/Bayer Study revealed a dichotomy of opinion regarding whether consolidation offered opportunities of increased demand due to the increasing size and scale of production leading to expansion of veterinary services and new value of that service or possibly a decreasing demand.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES for newly graduated food animal practitioners entering into the industry?

The challenge is for the new graduate to be adequately educated and trained to possess the required skills and knowledge needed to fulfill the changing responsibilities. “The new graduate has increasing opportunities as a result of the expansion of roles in food animal practice, particularly the shift from providing traditional veterinary practice services to a broader consulting type mode,” says American Veterinary Medical Association President Roger Mahr, DVM, St. Charles, Ill. “However, those roles may not have been apparent, or of interest, to the new graduates when they began their education.”

Mahr adds that some creative changes in veterinary college programs and curricula may need to be established to allow for collaborative training across universities, such as through consortia, as well as interrelationships among disciplinary areas, including veterinary medicine, human medicine, biomedical engineering and animal science.

Ferry adds that in dairy practice, the new graduate will struggle to display competence when compared with the level of expertise the well-trained farm employee already has.

In the beef industry, Mayer believes new graduates need to understand the businesses they are working with at all levels. “They need to walk in the shoes of their clients for a while to fully understand the business. Essential preparation includes experience in the area, compassion for both the client and their livestock and understanding all aspects of the business.”

WHAT NEW OPPORTUNITIES are available for food animal veterinarians?

The contemporary challenges of the 21st century have created unprecedented opportunities in food supply veterinary medicine. The opportunities must be considered to encompass the entire food system from production to processing to retail to consumer. This includes production medicine, food safety, food security, regulatory medicine, academia, research in animal disease prevention, detection and diagnosis, emergency health preparedness, and various positions in industry.

“With an increasing interest in product differentiation, such as with organic, antimicrobial/hormone free, or animal care standards, large niche markets are developing, which, in turn, create opportunities for veterinarians to develop specialized production health programs or serve as auditors of production standards,” says Mahr.

Another possibility for consideration is the opportunity to develop contractual relationships with state and federal governments to provide improved surveillance of diseases beyond brucellosis, tuberculosis and other governmental program diseases and to provide emergency management services in the event of a disease outbreak or a large scale natural disaster, adds Mahr.

In the beef industry, Mayer believes the areas of animal ID and its related data will be an opportunity, along with greater emphasis in animal welfare and animal care issues. Other areas of increased interest will be continual work in areas of beef quality assurance and food safety, helping clients with environmental issues such as pollution control and handling animal waste and manure management. “There will be expanded work in BVDV control and eradication,” says Mayer. “And education will be needed to recognize foreign animal diseases, along with implementing biosecurity programs and education.”

Working in-house for large dairies, particularly in developing protocols and training, is an area Ferry believes many dairy veterinarians will move into. Also, public health opportunities and consultation to mid-size dairies are avenues to consider.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PRACTITIONERS in preparing for a potential event (FMD, etc.) and preparing their clients? 

The practitioner must provide adequate surveillance in detection of an animal disease outbreak and facilitate the necessary diagnostic procedures. “I think practitioners serve as the first line of defense against such events, including purposeful bioterrorism,” says Ferry.

“In addition,” says Mahr, “the practitioner must have established clear communications
with production management, ensuring that management is prepared to understand and communicate disease processes and associated risks.”

“It is important to be involved at all levels -- with clients, their local community, county and state,” adds Mayer. “They need to be at the forefront and will play a key role in education and preparing clients of such an event.”

DO YOU BELIEVE food animal veterinarians need to start opening more dialogues with others in the food industry, such as retailers, packers, the restaurant industry, etc., in order to better understand consumer demands, desires and fears about our milk/meat products?

All three veterinarians agree these dialogues are critical.

The largest percentage of the country’s population is so far removed from agriculture that they have no idea where their food comes from, let alone have any idea about the production systems. “With that said, we can be leaders in sharing information with all levels of production and processing to assure everyone that we are producing safe, wholesome food,” suggests Mayer. “Food animal veterinarians and their clients are in the food business, and we need to share that information with everyone in the food chain to the consumer’s plate.”

Consumers are the ultimate clients to whom a product is delivered, and what they want in a product ultimately drives decision-making.   “The food supply veterinarian may have limited contact with the shopper in front of the milk case,” states Mahr. “Retailers, packers and the restaurant industry can be important communication interfaces.” 

AS LEADERS of food animal organizations, why do you encourage practitioners to become involved with organized veterinary medicine?

Ferry’s top reasons to become involved in organized veterinary medicine is the opportunity for continuing education and membership with like-minded individuals to promote a strong voice. “As food animal production comes increasingly under attack, practitioners may find themselves with no clients if they don’t add their voice to the voices of others representing our industry,” says Ferry. “If they don’t get involved, they may find that those who are involved are opposed to animal agriculture.”

Mayer likes to be involved with organized veterinary medicine to stay abreast of cutting-edge changes in the industry and to make sure the information he shares with clients is accurate and current. He also strongly encourages others to stay up-to-date.

Another great reason is the ability to network and have access to other experts practically at a moment’s notice. “I admit that I don’t always have an answer for a problem,” says Mayer. “I am not afraid to admit to my clients I don’t know, but I tell them that through my connections in organized veterinary medicine, I know a colleague who can likely help us. That is such a joy of the community of food animal veterinarians who are always willing to help and share information.”

Mayer adds that with the availability of education through food animal organizations, there is no excuse for some of the practices to continue that are no longer valid to continue. “I still see things in the field such as re-labeling of products or re-bottling products with inadequate information or misleading information. I still see compounded products or the combining of two or more approved products into a bottle with poor or inadequate labeling. This is not only concerning but frustrating to see this after all the education that has been available to all veterinarians. The excuse of saying ‘I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong’ doesn’t cut it any more.  We are all in business to be profitable, but it is more important to make sure we are helping our clients produce safe and wholesome food than it is to make money at any cost.”

“We are all partners in striving to fulfill the AVMA’s mission to improving animal and
human health and advancing the veterinary medical profession,” adds Mahr. “By working together we can convert those challenges into opportunities, and in so doing, we will improve the lives of our patients, our clients, our colleagues and our society in general.”

A key element of the responsibility to the future of the veterinary profession is veteri-nary leadership development. “Utilizing that leadership and nurturing and developing that leadership potential in our students and recent graduates is so important to the future of our profession,” says Mahr.  “I urge all colleagues to do whatever they can to enhance the impact of leadership within our veterinary profession, whether by serving organized veterinary medicine or mentoring a fellow colleague.”

WHY IS FOOD ANIMAL MEDICINE a great profession to already be involved in and for pre-vet and vet students to consider?

The FSVMC/Bayer Study revealed that job satisfaction and retention among new and long-term food animal veterinarians is very high and that food animal veterinarians are proud of the service that they provide to ensure an abundant and safe food supply.  They enjoy the rural lifestyle and have a desire to contribute to public health and safety, the career provides a variety of interesting tasks, and they enjoy working with nice and interesting people. They are able to make use of their medical and surgical skills and have fewer issues with time management than veterinarians employed in other occupational areas.

Ferry agrees and counts as perks his enjoyment of a great living and the great outdoors. “Rural veterinarians enjoy a special place in their small communities that urban veterinarians can only hope for,” explains Ferry. “We are some of the only professional people in town and are part of every family. As a food animal veterinarian, you are part of feeding a hungry world. It’s a job you can feel good about when you go to sleep at night.”

Mayer enjoys food animal medicine because he has the opportunity to help his clients with their businesses. “I enjoy being a team player and a business partner with my clients. You have the sense of being part of the family with many of your clients. I have had the opportunity to work with three generations of the same family in their cattle feeding operations. It has been rewarding to see these family members grow and develop in the industry and to know I had something to do with their development. Being a food animal veterinarian is more than just a job, it’s a way of life.”

WHAT CAN PRACTITIONERS DO to help foster/mentor potential and current veterinary students to ensure we have an adequate number of them for the future?

These three veterinarians agree that visiting schools, talking to students, inviting them to visit practices, offering preceptorships/externships and just making themselves available as mentors will help recruit and retain food animal veterinary students.

And it should start early. “These vast opportunities need to be enthusiastically emphasized to youth beginning at the elementary grade level and continuing into the college level,” says Mahr. “Mentoring high school, pre-veterinary and veterinary students, as well as recent veterinarian graduates, is an important nurturing process in providing confidence and direction.”

For information on rural veterinarians, visit the Academy of Rural Veterinarians web site at



John Ferry, DVM, President

American Association of Bovine Practitioners, Belleville, N.Y.,

Ferry encourages bovine veterinarians to participate in organized veterinary medicine to create a unified voice for the industry.


Roger Mahr, DVM, President

American Veterinary Medical Association, St. Charles, Ill.,

Mahr says large niche markets are developing, which, in turn, create opportunities for veterinarians to develop specialized services.


John Mayer, DVM, President

Academy of Veterinary Consultants, Neola, Iowa,

Mayer believes new graduates need to walk in the shoes of their clients to fully understand their businesses.












The AVMA has identified five top strategic issues to be addressed over the next three to five years. These issues are animal welfare, economic viability, veterinary workforce, veterinary education and veterinary services. “Each of these issues touch food supply veterinary medicine,” says Roger Mahr, AVMA president. 

Mahr explains these strategic issues:

1. Animal welfare as a science must become part of veterinary education. All veterinarians need a clear understanding and appreciation for animal welfare science and ethics. The reactions and expectations of consumers and retailers toward animal welfare are significant and they must be met.

2. The issue of economic viability continues to be addressed by the AVMA and the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI). The NCVEI food animal pricing tools and benchmarking models have now been established and are being utilized, although their effect on practice incomes and salaries has not yet been determined. More practices are encouraged to utilize these models and to enter their data, thereby increasing the practical value of the models. Emphasis now must be placed on increasing the value of a practice through increased  productivity, efficiency and communication between the veterinarian, staff and client.

3. The most urgent challenge is the critical need for more veterinarians to fill the increasing size and diversity of the food supply veterinary medicine workforce. This includes production medicine, food safety, food security, regulatory medicine, academia, research, emergency health preparedness and industry. 

4. Current and future veterinarians must be adequately prepared, educated and trained to meet these diverse needs. Professional associations and colleges must be committed partners in recruiting and preparing these additional veterinarians.

5. The potential effect of proposed changes in state legislative policies and regulations has a direct impact on the scope of veterinary practice. These proposed changes must be continually monitored. The veterinary profession must be the leading resource on animal health policy issues.