Picking a Vet

picking a vet cattle inspection web

Eric Klein has been around animals all his life. He grew up on his family’s hobby farm in New Jersey, and he would sometimes do work for other farmers nearby. After college, he worked on a cattle ranch out West, and today he and his wife operate Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minnesota, where they practice sustainable farming and finish grass-fed beef, deep-bedded hogs, and pasture chickens.

He’s proud to say that his methods of managing his herd produce naturally healthy animals, but he admits that it doesn’t always go as planned on the farm. “I don’t care who it is, everyone has been through a wreck, where you’re losing animals and you don’t know why,” Klein said. “That’s where you really find out who your good vets are. … I know [farmers] who are really good at raising calves and haven’t lost a single one in 50 years. Then suddenly they get a bug, and they are losing three a day.”

He said that one of the keys to remedying – or avoiding – such a situation is to have a proactive relationship with your vet. That word “relationship” comes up commonly when talking to Klein as well as to Dr. Michael Costin, DVM, the assistant director to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s division of animal and public health.

When Costin was in veterinary school, he volunteered at a large clinical practice that provided companion animal, equine, and surgical services. They also had a four-doctor dairy practice. “I started in the equine department, then a year into that volunteering experience, I started riding with the dairy specialists, and I fell in love with it,” he said. “Every day, you get in the truck and you’re going to multiple farms. You’re getting into the outdoors. The work was fascinating. That’s what made me focus on becoming a dairy vet.”

Costin and Klein have developed their own perspectives on what it takes to find the right veterinarian. And even though they work on opposite ends of the industry, there’s a surprising amount of overlap in their suggestions.

 

Availability

There is a wide spectrum of access to veterinary service in this country.

picking a vet piglet web

A veterinarian prepares to give a piglet an injection. Because the health of a producer’s animals can directly affect their livelihood, it’s important to find a trusted vet.

After graduating with his veterinary degree in 2003, Costin eventually went to work in an eight-person practice in a part of Wisconsin dense with large dairy farms. When selecting a vet practice, he said, farmers should consider factors like: a potential veterinarian’s distance from their farm; the practice’s reputation; and how many veterinarians that practice employs. “That has an impact on the types and levels of service that you get: A three-doctor service may not be able to respond to an emergency as quickly as, say, an eight-doctor practice, because they won’t have the available manpower.”

But in many cases, farmers don’t have so many available options.

“I feel like we have a good number in my area, but you travel around and you find a lot of places just have one vet over a huge range,” Klein said. “So they don’t have a choice. You take what you get, and you hope that you get a good one.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes that there is a shortage of large animal veterinarians in this country, especially in deeply rural areas. A 2015 Associated Press article pointed out the grim financial prospects for a veterinarian graduate who finishes school with sizeable student loans. Compared to a companion-animal practice that exists under a single roof, an on-site veterinarian practice requiring hours of road travel each day is far less profitable.

That’s why the USDA operates the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, which offers up to $25,000 per year (for up to three years) in student loan repayment to eligible veterinarians who agree to work in areas of the country that are short-staffed.

Then there’s the inherent danger associated with working with livestock. “Physically, being a food-animal veterinarian is demanding,” Costin said. “I have done some damage to my body – tore my ACL [tendon], broke my pelvis, tore my rotator cuff. I realized that, no matter how much I loved the work and the people, that I was not going to be able to physically do that job into my 70s. That led me to start exploring what other options are out there.” Eventually he quit his partnership, took up a less time-consuming job, and pursued an MBA degree to help him better understand the business of agriculture from both the veterinarian and the farmer’s perspectives.

 

Understand Your Needs

“I’ve seen a lot of people go into farming not thinking about the aspect of animals getting sick,” said Klein. He occasionally consults with new farmers, advising them on how to set up their operations. Often, the need to find a good vet doesn’t make their initial list of concerns. He said farming looks rosy from the outside, and new farmers just imagine that they won’t have any problems and “are going to raise their sheep. But they don’t realize that animals get sick, and lambs get stuck. That’s not really something that gets discussed, but it should be.”

“The producer needs to determine what he wants from his vet service and use that criteria to determine which veterinary service to use.”

Before interviewing a potential vet, take stock of what services you will probably need.

In Klein’s case, he and his staff can do a lot of the day-to-day husbandry of the animals, and he mostly relies on his local veterinary practice for diagnostic work and prescriptions – plus some occasional emergency response. But it was a challenge to find a vet who understood the different animals on his farm. “Around here everything is dairy. So if you have pigs, it’s a little tough to find a vet.” And a few years ago, his long-time pig veterinarian retired. “Now we have a new vet who recently graduated. He’s willing to learn. And there’s a network behind him – friends of friends – that he can reach out to.”

Costin’s experience serving large dairy producers was much more specialized. “A farmer needs to determine the types of services he is looking for from his veterinarian. Does the farmer just want the emergency medical services or does the farmer want additional services such as pregnancy examinations, consulting, records analysis, etc.? How do the vets perform pregnancy exams? Do they manually palpate, do they use ultrasounds, do they offer blood tests for pregnancy? Does the vet clinic have lab services that the producer may want to utilize like a milk culture lab? The producer needs to determine what he wants from his vet service and use that criteria to determine which veterinary service to use.”

 

Developing a Relationship

Costin and Klein agreed that the most important aspect of choosing a veterinarian is the relationship that will be developed with the farmer. So the two parties must decide if they are a good fit.

picking a vet milking parlor web

A farmer and veterinarian discuss dairy cattle in a milking parlor. The ability to establish a good relationship is an important consideration when selecting a vet.

“A producer has to be able to trust their veterinarian, because they are seeking advice from the veterinarian that not only impacts their business but their families,” Costin said. “This is how producers make their living, so they have to be able to trust the veterinarian’s advice. But they don’t always have to take it.”

Both Costin and Klein explained that the veterinarian’s role can range from that of a service provider to a deeply involved consultant who helps make decisions on overall herd health.

With a larger practice, a farmer will typically work with the same veterinarian, who calls on others in their clinic as needed. Usually that vet is the one with whom the farmer has the best relationship, and one that is more involved in making day-to-day decisions with the farm, Costin said. If the farmer has questions on vaccines or treatment protocols, that regular vet is the one who takes point on helping that producer. In the background, the main vet will likely be consulting with other doctors in their clinic, and may occasionally call them in to help. The other vets in the practice may also be brought in to help in the case of an emergency, when the farm’s primary vet may be unavailable.

“It’s just like going to the doctor,” said Klein. “There are some doctors that rub you the wrong way, and others that you feel like you can just open up to. It’s the same way, but with animals.” A human patient may see a regular doctor, but others in the clinic may fill in for that doctor. Or that doctor may be able to refer a specialist. Farmers will learn which veterinarian from a given practice is a good fit with their business and personality.

Part of that connection goes back to why a vet started serving animals and farms in the first place.

“If you have the ability to choose, then it’s worth understanding that these people all have a special interest that drove them to vet school,” said Klein. “So try to match the vet’s passion with your passion. In a perfect world where that’s possible, that would be the No. 1 priority as far as developing a good relationship.”

Caption for top photo: A veterinarian inspects cattle. Understanding what veterinary services your farm needs will help you find the right vet. USDA APHIS photo by R. Anson Eaglin

This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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