Glacier FarmMedia – Veterinarians are often the first line of defence to prevent and mitigate animal diseases or foreign animal disease outbreaks.
However, more and more vets, particularly new graduates, are migrating to companion animal practices. And that has implications when it comes to protecting the food supply.
Large-animal vets are key when it comes to food safety, says Dr. Tye Perrett of Feedlot Health Management Services in Okotoks, Alta.
“They have an important role to play in animal disease detection and control programs to avoid animal disease outbreaks,” said Perrett, co-author of a paper released last year on the impact of the dwindling number of large-animal vets in the U.S. on its food supply.
“All of those tie into not only the food safety and secure food supply, but there’s a big economic and financial impact, the public’s confidence in the food supply and implications on trade restrictions.”
The BSE crisis in 2003 highlighted the impact animal disease can have on trade and the role veterinarians play in reassuring the public, government and international bodies, he said. The discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a single cow in Alberta caused the U.S. (and then about 40 other countries) to close the border to Canadian beef and cattle — moves that cost the beef sector an estimated $5 billion.
While the cattle industry did recover over time, Perrett said he wonders how much time that recovery would have taken if there hadn’t been sufficient veterinary oversight in the early days of the outbreak.
The shortage of large-animal vets is being exacerbated by another factor.
Many livestock producers are moving to areas where land is more affordable, and typically farther from urban areas. That means it’s likely to be an underserved area from a veterinary medicine point of view, said Perrett.
“What are we in North America going to do as far as planning to have veterinarians there?” said Perrett. “Animal agriculture is going to go there with or without us.”
The shortage has been a concern for years and the pool of candidates isn’t large, said Dr. Rob Swackhammer, who owns a livestock veterinary practice in Guelph, Ont.
“There are challenges attracting new vets to the practice,” said the owner of Upper Grand Veterinary Services. “For one, less of them graduated every year than small-animal (veterinarians), and the skill set that’s required is quite unique.”
The solution may require a major shakeup of how vet schools operate, said Swackhammer, a former professor at the Ontario Veterinary College.
“I’ve often mused about whether food animal veterinary medicine education has reached a crossroads and should be separate from companion animal veterinary medicine,” he said. “We really require something more than just the basic DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine) program.”
Hands-on training is another factor, said Swackhammer, adding the most significant challenge he faced as a professor was finding opportunities for students to get experience.
“There are some skills they could learn from a busy, private practice that they won’t necessarily get at the vet school,” he said. “You’ve got the lab machine, but it’s two hours away. You’ve got to deal with the case now. What are you going to do?”
Nor can a school expose students to high daily case numbers, challenges around time management and dealing with unexpected situations.
“The University of Calgary already has a distributed community model. It doesn’t actually have a teaching hospital,” Swackhammer said.
“The key to that is compensation — paying those practices to take students so they can compensate producers for the extra time a call takes and have enough vets to get all the calls done in a day.”
It also exposes pre-grad students to the supports they need to cultivate, especially if they’re moving to a rural area, to balance out the demands on their time and personal relationships.
“You cannot underestimate how stressful it is when your time is not your own,” Swackhammer said. “We promise our producers that we’ll be available in times of need for them, and that really limits what you can do when you’re on call.”
Early connections could also allow food animal practitioners to showcase the great things about being in an extensive animal practice.
“We’re here because we like it,” said Perrett. “We made a conscious choice to be in food animal practice, and there’s a lot of passion among veterinarians.”
He said there are at least two components to mentoring, the first being the craft of veterinary medicine, such as efficiency when performing procedures or hands-on veterinary skills.
Diana Martin is a reporter for Farmtario. Her article appeared in the July 12, 2021 issue.