In reference to animal handling and welfare, a prominent veterinarian once suggested producers invite urban friends or relatives to spend a day observing farm operations, and encourage them to ask questions. That fresh, outsider view can help reveal practices or behaviors that could raise concerns among the non-agricultural public.

Some of those concerns might reflect a simple misunderstanding and a need for better communication. A squeeze chute, for example, could create concerns, until the observer learns that when operated properly it actually reduces stress on cattle while protecting them, and workers, from injury. Some other questions might indicate an actual problem, such as improper drug use or an employee who violates welfare standards.

In many cases, veterinarians are ideally suited to play the role of outside observer and advisor, helping clients understand consumers, recognize the importance of their perceptions and adopt practices that would pass the “big-city-cousin test.”

To offer some insights on the veterinarian’s changing roles in tackling consumer issues, we asked several prominent veterinarians to address questions on the topic.

Veterinarians who provided input on these questions are:

·         Fred Gingrich, DVM, dairy practitioner, Country Roads Veterinary Services, Ashland, Ohio

·         Dan Goehl, DVM, beef practitioner, Canton Veterinary Clinic, Canton, Mo.

·         Dee Griffin, DVM, MS, beef specialist, Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, Clay Center, Neb.

·         Guy Jodarski, DVM, supervising veterinarian, CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley Dairy (with input from his colleague Jen Burton, DVM)

·         Del Miles, DVM, MS, feedyard consultant, Veterinary Research & Consulting Services, LLC, Greeley, Colo.

·         Dale Moore, DVM, PhD, dairy specialist, Washington State University

·         Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, beef specialist, Kansas State University

The May-June issue of Bovine Veterinarian included Part 1 of this series. In that article, our panel of veterinarians addressed consumer trends they expect to affect their clients’ operations and weaknesses or opportunities they see in beef or dairy operations with regard to meeting consumer expectations. In this article, the panel addresses two more questions looking at actions veterinarians can take to help their clients protect their public image.

What are some key things veterinarians can do to help ensure their clients’ operations live up to public expectations and visibly demonstrate social responsibility?

Dee Griffin: Take a long view of the future and do not dismiss consumers’ concerns and questions. Educate clients on the value of providing shade, mud control and pain mitigation. Low-stress cattle handling is critical. Support NCBA’s cattle-assessment and auditing efforts, and teach clients how to give local anesthetics and pain management medications.

Dale Moore: With regard to antimicrobials and other drugs use on the farm, the veterinarian has the ultimate role as “gatekeeper.” A lot can be done by improving recordkeeping, developing standard operating procedures (SOPs), providing effective training and feedback to employees, and documenting everything.

Fred Gingrich: Veterinarians need to point out the problems on the farm before being asked by the farmer.  Be proactive in encouraging clients to change and improve facilities and cow comfort.  Discuss it from a broad animal-welfare, economic and production perspective. Veterinarians need to constantly encourage clients to keep good treatment records.  Review them regularly with the client.

Dan Thomson: Veterinarians can be a huge asset in traceability and on-farm verification for assessment programs.  Our profession is already tasked by the USDA to write health papers for interstate transport. Beef retailers will continue to ask producers to verify management practices through audits on the farm. With traceability, and the development of rapid diagnostics, I think disease eradication, including food-borne pathogens, will be a huge opportunity.

Veterinarians also will be asked to play a larger role in preventative medicine.  This will require students and veterinarians to become immersed in production practices, while understanding infectious disease prevention.  Veterinarians will still be needed to provide humane veterinary care and emergency medicine.  However, practice sustainability will hinge on the practice of individual and production animal medicine.  Tomorrow’s practitioner will need to be well-rounded and provide medicine for rural communities, not just food-animal producers. 

Veterinarians help ranchers and cattle feeders keep up with the most current techniques for animal husbandry and surgery. They also help producers document best management practices (BMPs) and SOPs for their specific farming/ranching operation.  It is not appropriate to write SOPs or BMPs for the entire industry.  So many things go into making medical decisions like cattle size, cattle type, weather patterns, soil type, facilities, technical abilities of the producer and many more clinically relevant variables.  The beef producer has great trust in the bovine veterinarian.  The veterinarian will be so important to helping make sure the right techniques are used on the right cattle, and the producer will be able to say that he uses the techniques recommended by his animal-health provider. 

Del Miles: Veterinarians need to reduce antibiotic use, especially feed-grade antibiotics such as tetracyclines.  There is limited science to justify the use of these products.

Guy Jodarski: We need to be a proxy for the consumer to alert clients about conditions and practices our customers would question or object to. Farmers and ranchers are busy, hard-working people who often do not have the consumers’ perspective in mind when going about their daily work. As veterinarians we see a spectrum of livestock operations in our practice and can alert clients to conditions they may overlook. We should be a reasonable “voice of conscience” who alerts our clients without condemning them.

Next, we need to help our clients find solutions. We should stay current with research and science pertaining to animal welfare and also with the ever-changing requirements being put forth by large food buyers. We can share ideas and solutions that other livestock managers have found to be effective and practical. We also have responsibility to motivate change when needed to meet expectations of the public. We should have a good idea of the rules and regulations that may be coming in the future. It’s our job to help clients realize they don’t need to fear public expectations.  They have a positive story to tell, and the good changes they make will be rewarded with customer loyalty.

Dan Goehl: Producers can participate in training on beef quality assurance, animal handling, etc.  The NCBA has facility assessments that can be filled out in-house or be third-party verified.  I would urge producers to complete these and have the certificates readily available. 

Could you provide examples of how you or other veterinarians have helped a client correct a problem, adopt a new practice or improve transparency?

Fred Gingrich: Our practice started hanging time-lapse video cameras in barns to demonstrate how well cows use stalls and where there are areas of opportunity.  We then had lunch meetings with the dairy farmers to view each other's videos and talk about what works and what does not work.  This led to improvements made on several farms. We also handed out treatment protocols and records books to all farms.  In the front of the book is a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) agreement that explains requirements of the VCPR to the client.  We review and sign this annually.  We have a page where we sign off when we review the treatment records. 

Guy Jodarski: During herd visits over the last few years, we have often discovered that calves were being dehorned at ages greater than 60 days with techniques that can be traumatic and painful. We teach our dairy farmers to disbud calves between 2 to 6 weeks of age with a butane dehorner with a small tip to minimize trauma — using a lidocaine nerve block, natural pain-killing tinctures or combinations of the two. We advocate for the use of polled bulls to eventually eliminate the need for dehorning.

As herd-health veterinarians we help organic farmers improve fly control by working on multiple fronts. Eliminating fly breeding areas, using physical controls (traps, sticky tape, etc.), encouraging bird populations and modifying cattle behavior are some approaches we have used with good success.

Our cooperative worked closely with researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) to develop effective means for horn fly control without the use of insecticides. Funding for construction and testing of a prototype to the Spaulding Cow-Vac was provided by voluntary contributions to a fund targeted toward research needs for organic farmers. The prototype developed by NCSU researchers and our members in North Carolina was subsequently picked up and commercialized by Spaulding Labs and has proven to be very effective for horn fly and face fly control.

Parasite issues in calves can be challenging for organic dairy farm managers. We have developed strategies for minimizing the impact of both coccidia and helminth parasites that entail several management practices including grazing management to reduce exposure to worm larvae on pasture.

We regularly bring consumer groups and food buyers to our farms for tours. This gives us an opportunity to demonstrate good animal care and allows guests to learn directly from farmers. These events usually provide a two-way learning experience. Consumers get the transparency they desire by being able to observe farm activities directly. Farmers get the consumer or food buyer perspective first-hand, learning about their concerns and misperceptions. As veterinarians, we often attend these events to facilitate the discussion. Our knowledge of animal health and experience working with many different livestock operations puts us in a unique position to help both parties understand and communicate with each other.   

Dale Moore: When the FDA announced the decision to look at the other drugs that were not being tested for in milk, the Washington Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian’s office, the Department of Food Safety and Consumer affairs, industry, and my office got together to provide up-to-date information to dairy farmers. We learned from many dairy producers, though, that their veterinarians had already talked to them and took the opportunity to update protocols and educate employees. Through these efforts, residue violations in the state declined over the next 18 months, and only one warning letter has appeared on the FDA page since March 2012.

Del Miles: A few years ago we entertained physicians and veterinarians from the Centers for Disease Control in one of our clients’ operations.  They were amazed by what they actually saw versus their preconceived ideas of the cattle-feeding industry.  We attempted one time to do the same with the media (USA Today) and got severely burned. 

Also, our clients have significantly reduced the use of feed-grade antibiotics such as tetracyclines and, with rare exceptions, eliminated it.

Find Part 1 of this article on BovineVetOnline.com.