Planning is a journey, not a destination – at least that’s how Jim Furman, DVM, MS, feels about working with his cow-calf clients in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Furman, of The Animal Center, Alliance, Neb., knows exactly what type of cow-calf client he wants so he can help them plan their journey. “We want the people who are looking for more in their operation than just if they have an open or a bred cow.”
Furman has spent years cultivating opportunities and marketing services to his Sand Hills ranchers and feedlot operations that go well beyond the diagnosis of an open or pregnant cow. “When we collect our information, we look at the number of open cows and try to figure out why they are open,” he says. “Did we semen test and evaluate the bulls? Is there a possibility of trichomoniasis or vibriosis in the herd? Did they vaccinate the way they should have? We have these discussions at the point of service, but we also try to meet at another time to lay out a program or update our clients’ health programs.”
Taking those extra steps with clients is valuable to the veterinarian in that he or she gets more involved in the operation, can offer more services and can help the client stay profitable.
Opportunities for cow-calf veterinarians go way beyond traditional services such as vaccinating at branding time – now is the time to explore your options.
“Many producers don’t know the depth and breadth of what veterinarians can offer,” says American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) President Mark Spire, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, Kansas State University. “Many veterinarians don’t realize all of the things they can do for their clients and as a result, many have not put together and sold marketing packages to their clients.”
Furman notes that veterinarians and producers may resist looking for these opportunities because “we didn’t have to do this 60 years ago.” But then again, he says, “in the Sand Hills of Nebraska 60 years ago a 60 percent calf crop was good. We’ve become that much more efficient, and efficiencies are what have kept us going. The opportunity is there to work with your clients to help them become better businessmen, but you have to be a good businessman yourself to understand that philosophy if you’re going to help your clients.”
Spire says he’s read that in the first five years, 90 percent of new businesses fail, and in the next five years, 90 percent of those fail. “What we end up with is a very small percentage of successful businesses. Yet we graduate new practitioners every year and expect every one of them to succeed and make their fortune. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen. Common-sense, business-minded and entrepreneurial veterinarians are the ones who will be successful. We are fortunate in the cattle side of the profession that there are a lot of practitioners out there who are identifying client needs and fulfilling them. Unfortunately, there are far too many other practices that still have veterinarians sitting by the phone waiting for clients to call and missing out on marketing opportunities for goods and services.”
Supersize the service
The restaurant and retail industry have the right idea – bundle more products together for a better value. Spire believes the food animal profession can do the same thing. “We tend to package services as ‘singletons’ – we go out and preg check or vaccinate or sell a product instead of looking at the overall needs and the type of clients we have. We need to put together whole packages of services and products as a single unit price where the separate pieces can’t get picked apart.”
Take a McDonald’s Extra-Value Meal for example. You know you’re getting a sandwich, soda and fries for one bundled price, but you don’t know – and don’t really care – about the price for each element within the meal – but you know if you bought them individually you’d be paying more.
“If we put services and products in a grouped or packaged set, they are less able to get split off and perhaps purchased somewhere else. Packaging allows us to provide a value-added service to the client by combining technical skills and disposable product sales with additional management tools like recordkeeping and economic evaluation,” Spire adds.
Can’t beat ’em? Join ’em!
Do you think every veterinarian in the area is after your clients so you have to jealously guard them? Or that what you know about beef cattle practice is so unique that if you shared it your competitive advantage would disappear? Or do think you have more expertise in certain areas of production, nutrition or other disciplines that you could share with producers who use another veterinarian who doesn’t provide the service? If that’s the case, maybe now is the time to think about joining forces to expand your practice and services.
Wade Taylor, DVM, Oakley Veterinary Services, Oakley, Kan., says, “I read somewhere that it takes nothing away from one candle to light another candle. If you develop the mentality that there’s enough pie for everybody, then you don’t worry about sharing what you know.”
Taylor and colleague Tom Noffsinger, DVM, Twin Forks Veterinary Clinic, Benkelman, Neb., have been working together for some of their feedlot clients for several years. Though Taylor’s practice is 100 miles from Noffsinger’s, they’ve found common ground with joint clients. “We could have been competitors very easily instead of developing a relationship that was good for us and good for our clients,” says Taylor. “Tom always says that 1+1 = 11. When we work together with clients, we have the ability to give people honest, sometimes differing viewpoints based on our perspectives, without hurting each other’s feelings because we respect each other. In the feedlot world, our relationship has been one of our key marketing advantages.”
Mark Spire, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, encourages veterinarians to put together whole packages of services and products.
Working together like that doesn’t diminish the uniqueness of these two veterinarians – rather, it allows each of them to build upon their individual expertise in certain areas for the same client. “I’m probably a numbers and broad-picture person, and Tom looks more at individual treatments and teaching,” says Taylor. “We rely on each other’s strengths to cover our weaknesses, and it lets us develop our strengths.” The advantage to the client, he adds, is that if allows for more than one set of eyes to evaluate the operation from different perspectives.
Spire adds that regionalization of veterinary practices is another new trend. “These ‘associatives’ have common secretaries, accounting and support staff, and other shared resources, but they are actually independent practices operating out of the same facilities. This allows the veterinarians to specialize in certain areas and have a cost-sharing of traditional, high-expense items.”
How do you find and develop those relationships? Networking is an excellent way. Organizations such as AABP or the Academy of Veterinary Consultants are two excellent professional organizations to take advantage of – to stimulate thought, acquire knowledge and meet other like-minded practitioners. Taylor also looks outside the beef industry for different perspectives. “I like to read Swine Practitioner. I don’t see any swine, but I like to review their work and see what swine consultants are doing and how some of those concepts might apply to what I do.”
Jim Furman, DVM, MS, says you have to be a good businessman to understand your clients’ businesses.
Tell them about it
Common to many food animal veterinary practices regarding new technology or services is the notion that clients will automatically know you provide them – then you wonder why the new offering isn’t a success. You have to let clients know the services and capabilities you can bring to them. Taylor uses meetings or sits down with clients to review new technology, especially if they show an interest in it.
Furman also believes in letting clients know what his practice can do for them. “In today’s Wal-Mart world, people expect to hear what you have to
offer them in some form of advertising,” he says. “Look at the human medical profession. Hospitals, clinics and specialists are advertising their services. I think we’ll see more advertising, not so much for competitiveness, but to educate current and potential clients.” To that end, Furman uses radio advertising, newsletters, producer meetings and one-on-one client meetings to let clients and potential clients know the services he can offer to them.
Wade Taylor, DVM, believes sharing what you know with other practitioners can lead to opportunities.
Furman also lets the local media help him advertise. When he or his colleagues attend or are involved with important CE meetings such the AVC, AABP or the Western Veterinary Conference, he lets the local newspaper know. “Often our paper will write about it, and sometimes the local radio station will pick it up from the newspapers.”
Grooming potentially the next generation of veterinarians can be a business-builder in the community, too. Furman’s clinic has a “shadowing” program – a volunteer program where kids interested in veterinary medicine apply for a clinic job and get to be involved in all aspects of the practice. This program, popular with the community, also highlights The Animal Center in and around Alliance.
“There are more opportunities today than there were 20 years ago,” sums Taylor. “Opportunities are there for veterinarians who understand the operation and understand marketing, genetics, biosecurity, environmental situations, etc. There’s never enough time in the day to do all the things I could do for my clients.”
Start with calf numbers
Many services for cow-calf clients can be enhanced by records analysis. Jim Furman, DVM, MS, uses the Standard Performance Analysis software (SPA), which identifies ways to lower the cost of production. Using information gathered from production and financial records, this software program enables cattlemen to blend data to provide benchmarks like rate of return on assets, net income per cow, pounds weaned per exposed cow, grazing and feed costs per cow. In a veterinarian’s hands, the SPA program can enable you to make detailed analyses of clients’ herds.
Furman gives an example of keeping calf records to facilitate cow herd investigations and the offering of more services. For each group of cows, they keep track of:
How many cows were turned out for breeding
How many cows were actually pregnant
How many calves were actually born
How many calves made it from birth to branding
How many calves were weaned
Analyzing calf numbers at critical times can help spot problems on the operation.
“Those numbers are fairly simple and easy to gather,” says Furman, “but you’d be surprised at how many clients can’t tell you what those numbers are year to year.”
From this point, Furman and his client will look at the areas where the numbers are not satisfactory. “If we end up with cows confirmed pregnant that don’t calve, now we need to find out why. Were they not pregnant in the first place? That’s probably unlikely if we checked them. Did we abort some calves or lose some that were born to predator, disease or accident?”
At branding, Furman analyzes how many calves made it from birth to branding and evaluates how much and what type of health problems, if any, were experienced in that 60-day period. “Then through the summer, you know how many you’ve branded, and if you don’t bring that many in for preconditioning or weaning, you try to figure out if they wandered off to the neighbor’s, did the coyotes get them or did they have a death loss due to disease?”
Each step in the process, says Furman, lends itself to constantly evaluating health, nutrition and biosecurity programs of his clients and modifying them when needed. “These are easy-to-gather numbers, but if the client does not have guidance, direction or encouragement, these analyses won’t get done.”
For more information on SPA in your area, contact Renee Lloyd, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, at 303-850-3373 or email@example.com.
Where are the opportunities?
There have been a lot of changes in the beef industry in the past several years, and more are coming. For cow-calf veterinarians, these changes can equal opportunity. “Often veterinarians don’t look at the subtle changes going on in the industry, and they aren’t tuned into identifying where they can market services based on those changes,” says Mark Spire, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT.
When you combine identification, source verification/certification programs, food safety and others, there are a lot of areas for veterinarians to get involved in, notes Wade Taylor, DVM.
Industry opportunities include:
Probably the biggest opportunity coming for veterinarians will involve working with identification systems, whether voluntary or mandatory. Spire says veterinarians may be the “animal ID manager” and the person who tags, keeps records for both production and regulatory purposes and charges for it. “This will provide an opportunity for veterinarians to interact with regular clients by providing expanded services and with clients who may not have used veterinary services at all in the past.”
If the veterinarian does not step up and take a lead role in areas like identification, “we will get bypassed,” adds Taylor. “In feedyards, it would be easy for the local practitioner to do verification and certification, and a wonderful opportunity to be involved in enhancing profits and opportunities.”
“ID is a gigantic opportunity for the profession because there will have to be verification and it will probably be put back to the veterinarian,” says Jim Furman, DVM, MS. “We’ll do it very ethically, straightforward and correctly. We understand the whole principle behind it and why it’s important to be able to track an animal within 48 hours.”
Veterinarians may also be able to work with clients who haven’t utilized veterinary services very much in the past but now may be forced to identify their cattle. If that’s the case, veterinarians can let them know what they offer and start marketing other goods and services that they’ve never used before.
From a reproductive standpoint, if clients can now ID a cow, they can start keeping records and look at her age, physical condition, body-condition score, gestationally date pregnancies, etc. “By having that basic information, we can start looking at the influence age may have on reproductive performance in the herd, the overall calving efficiency and how we may want to deliver vaccines and nutrition to those cows,” says Spire. “We can go further by recording breed type, looking at straight-bred versus crossbreds and start keeping track of that information.”
There are at least 10 and probably 50 pieces of information you can get to tie to that individual animal ID that will benefit the bottom line of an operation, says Spire. “If the client wants to move all that data upstream with the cattle, he can.”
There’s no reason producers shouldn’t have these numbers for comparison year after year, adds Furman. “If the veterinarian helps the producer evaluate yearly fluctuations, he or she has a good opportunity to analyze and figure out problems.”
If you don’t have time to set up computerized records programs, look locally, says Spire. “About any-sized town has high schools kids who know how to set up a simple Excel spreadsheet. Get it set up the way you want, then start doing simple data analysis. If you want to benchmark across all of your clients, you can do that.” From that, you can graduate to more in-depth information and more sophisticated records analysis.
“Set up an appointment and talk to your clients about how this information can help them,” suggests Spire. “Once you and the client are communicating, that can open up a whole new world of service offerings.”
Alliances offer producers and their veterinarians unique opportunities. As a client starts looking at what alliances require for their individual programs, the veterinarian should be part of that discussion because it may influence the product selection going into those animals, the timing and the type of records that need to be kept. “The veterinarian can play an integral part in that and not just be writing health certificates for shipping cattle,” says Spire. “It goes into the total package.” For a current list of beef cattle alliances, visit the Drovers Web site at www.drovers.com/directories.asp?pgID=648.
Instead of not needing a vaccination program for weaned calves, clients may now need a program that carries over to wanting those cattle to perform well in the feedyard. This is an opportunity for the veterinarian to put together a program of vaccination, deworming, nutrition and minerals and a total weaning package.
Use available technology
Spire notes there are a variety of technologies available to the cow-calf veterinarian that are useful across all areas of cow-calf production. Examples include:
Technology for reproduction
Serologic testing for biosecurity, reproductive disease
Technology for breeding systems
Technology for nutrition
Body condition scoring