What does it take to be a successful international bovine veterinary consultant? Bovine Veterinarian posed this question to four internationally recognized consultants — two dairy consultants and two beef feedlot consultants. While their answers varied somewhat, the prerequisites they all agreed on were that you need to have a desire to travel, and you shouldn’t mind being away from home for weeks at a time.

Internationally recognized mastitis and milk quality consultant Andy Johnson, DVM, Clintonville, Wis., says he can spend from six to 10 weeks or more a year out of the country.

David Bechtol, DVM, Palo Duro Consulting/Research/Feedlot, Canyon, Texas, says when he was consulting internationally, he could sometimes be away from home for 30 days.

Melrose, Minn., dairy consultant David Tomsche, DVM, is gone two to three weeks per year, consulting with clients in Japan. In addition, he spends another three to four weeks per year with his Japanese clients in the United States.

Scott MacGregor, Livestock Consulting Services, Jerome, Idaho, says he works six weeks per year as an international feedlot consultant in South Africa and several countries in Europe.

Becoming a consultant

Johnson has been a dairy consultant for a little more than 20 years and has consulted in 47 states and 27 countries. “My smallest clients milk about 20 cows and my largest client milks about 22,000 cows in one location,” he says. Johnson began developing his consulting business after about 10 years as a practitioner in a Wisconsin dairy practice. In 1986, he quit the practice to devote himself fulltime to his consulting business.

In the beginning, the consulting was primarily in the United States. Johnson says he did not initially aspire to get into international consulting. That aspect evolved as he developed an international reputation as a milk quality and mastitis expert, he explains.

Bechtol began consulting internationally in 1985, but hasn’t done it for about three years, he says. Although he consulted in South Africa, Mexico and other countries for about 20 years, he says he never really planned on getting into it. “I never really looked to doing it in the beginning,” he says. “It was usually one of those deals where someone heard about me and asked me if I would mind coming over.”

Tomsche, a third-generation large animal practitioner, says he began consulting in Japan in about 1990, partly because he became bored with veterinary practice and was seeking a new challenge.  He got his foot in the door through an acquaintance who was working for dairy clients in Japan, he says.

“I went over there to give some seminars and one thing led to another,” Tomsche explains. “They enjoyed my seminars. I enjoyed working with them. I went back two or three more times and started working with a number of clients over there in a closer way. I’m from a small town in central Minnesota, and I just love to be able to see how things are done in other parts of the world,” he says. “It’s truly opened my eyes.”

MacGregor has consulted internationally since the early 2000s. He currently does work in Spain, Portugal, Italy and South Africa.  He had been doing feedlot consulting and research in the United States for about 20 years and, like Tomsche, was interested in a new challenge. “I was just interested in trying something different,” MacGregor explains. “I really like to travel and I perceived that there was a void and a need.”

In the beginning, most of MacGregor’s international consulting work was on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, but the business has since evolved into his own private consulting business in some of the countries, he says.

Client impact

Although they have had to make adjustments for their U.S. clients, these veterinarians all believe that their clients obtain much benefit as a result of their international consulting work.

“My clients understand that when I go, there’s always an opportunity to learn something or see something new and bring it back to them,” Johnson says. “With international consulting, you see a whole different set of rules. You see a whole different set of management skills. You see things that we don’t have here in the United States. It gives you a whole different light on the dairy industry.”

“When I was doing a lot of international work, it was an added experience and added contact to see how other people do things,” says Bechtol. “Even though I might be gone for 30 days from my clients, I still had my clients taken care of by other veterinarians. They weren’t hung out to dry. I never did look at it as a disadvantage.” Bechtol adds that, for the most part, his U.S. clients and the other veterinarians in his practice looked at his international consulting work as an added experience they could learn from.

Tomsche agrees that there are more advantages than disadvantages for his U.S. clients. “Clearly, I see things and try to bring things here that I saw over there. And vice versa. It’s not all a one-way export of U.S. information. I see things done over there that I think we should be implementing. I try to bring that back.”

At the same time, Tomsche acknowledges that he has had to make some adjustments to accommodate his international consulting activities. “I’ve had to choose. I haven’t been able to be all things to all groups anymore. Some of my clients had to live without seeing me as often as they did in the past.”

“There’s no question that from the 30,000-foot view, you get an opportunity to see the same things done, in terms of an end product, in different models,” MacGregor says. These models range from big cooperatives that are popular in Europe to large family operations in South Africa that have totally vertically integrated systems.

“So it’s a real nice chance to work within the different models,” MacGregor says. “It’s also really interesting to be able to look at products that we don’t have available in the United States, in other countries before they are approved here. This gives us a real advantage with our clients in the United States to discuss technology that you’ve seen in Africa that they’ve used for 10 years, that within six months we are going to have here in the States. You can learn from their mistakes and the things that went well, and be on the leading edge of the new technology, which is where we all want to be. It really broadens your perspective on practice in the United States and, in some cases, gives you a real lead on your competition.”

MacGregor says another benefit is that in many cases, friends he has made in foreign countries as a result of his international consulting business come to the United States to visit and see how things are done here. “That’s where you really get the cross- pollination effect. My clients love it. Frankly, it makes me look good because I’m bringing in people who have a global perspective to economics and business. It’s a real win-win.”  

Defining a consultant

There’s probably more than one definition of a consultant. Dairy consultant David Tomsche, DVM, provides this definition: “I view consulting as working on a farm unit for money. I don’t view consulting as giving seminars, although a lot of consultants give seminars, me included. But when I refer to consulting, I’m talking about being on a dairy for a fee, providing advice or direction and plans of action and probably monitoring.”

Tomsche acknowledges that, like most other practicing veterinarians, in the early part of his career he provided advice while at the same time being involved with the day-to-day sick cow and health management work. Some would argue that this is consulting, he says, “but eventually, true consulting becomes a fee for service where the service is advice.”

How to move into the international consulting arena

So, you think you might want to be an international veterinary consultant. How do you reach this goal?

“Number one is that you have to be able to sell yourself and the skills that you possess,” says Andy Johnson, DVM, an internationally recognized mastitis and milk quality consultant.  “You also have to be willing to take some risk.”

Johnson says one of the biggest challenges to making the transition into full-time consulting is that many veterinarians “get into a comfort zone and are afraid to give up something to try and develop a consulting end of their practice. So what a lot of veterinarians do is they try to do a full-time job with their regular business, and then try to do the consulting on the side.” This often results in having “to work even longer and harder hours, and then they get burned out and end up letting consulting go.”

Johnson says you need to learn early that you “can’t be everything to everybody. You have to make a decision where your interests and expertise are and then try to market those. You have to give something up because, no matter how hard I’ve tried, there’s still only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week.”

Dairy consultant David Tomsche, DVM, says it’s important to develop and maintain “a network of people of like interests in the United States that you can lean on a little bit.” When you have this sort of network, he says, you will more than likely find yourself obtaining some of the overflow work that the consultants in your network can’t handle because they are too busy.

“Some might have more business than what they can handle,” Tomsche says. “Some may have conflicts and can’t handle it all even though they don’t necessarily have a lot of business. They want to work with somebody that they know and trust and have a relationship with. Sometimes they want you to come in and work short-term with a client of theirs just to help solve a problem, but they want the client back.”

Tomsche says it has been important for him to be “willing to play whatever role anybody wanted me to play just so I could be in the arena.” In addition to networking, you need to have a proven record of consulting in the United States before trying to expand internationally, according to Tomsche.

“First you have to master just the day-to-day part of being a veterinarian and that may take five to 10 years,” he says. In addition to this, you might need to leave your veterinary practice and get involved in some other aspect of the industry, such as managing or even owning a dairy, Tomsche says.

In his case, because he enjoys public speaking, Tomsche helped develop his reputation by giving seminars at veterinary and/or dairy producer meetings. “Once you get into the arena, then you have to prove yourself, but everybody has to do this regardless of what they are doing.”

Wisconsin dairy consultant Johnson has these three suggestions for those desiring to become international consultants:

  • Be true to yourself and always put the customer’s needs first.
  • 2Don’t give your services away just because you’re getting an international trip.
  • Be as prepared as possible for the country and culture where you will be working and don’t think you have to have all the answers.

Feedlot consultant David Bechtol, DVM, suggests that you should let pharmaceutical companies know that you are interested in doing international consulting work. He also believes that if you are serious about international consulting, you should look at it as a business, rather than just something to do because you have a desire for global travel.

Another feedlot consultant, Scott MacGregor, DVM, says he got started in international consulting as a result of resources from pharmaceutical companies. “I’ve not wanted to be perceived as being too close because of potential conflict of interest issues and my image,” he says. “But on the other side of it, it’s hard for me to neglect the resources of a major pharmaceutical company because they obviously can do things that I can’t.”

MacGregor also believes that experience in production medicine in the United States is a necessity for any veterinarian with an interest in international consulting. “I don’t want to be the least bit arrogant about this — but having experience certainly goes a long way with the veterinarians in other countries, as well as the managers, because they expect you to know what you’re doing.”

Open-mindedness also is a good quality to have, according to MacGregor. “I think being open minded and willing to try things is critical. You need to get involved with it and try to enjoy any cultural aspect of it. When I go to a different country, I go with a pretty open mind.”