Dr. Rob Swackhammer rummages through the metal toolboxes nestled in a slide-out drawer on the back of his truck.
As he searched for dehorning implements, Swackhammer said it can be intimidating for veterinary students to choose a large animal specialty unless they have a passion for it.
“There are challenges attracting new vets to the practice,” said Swackhammer, 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 clientele generally has extensive, generational knowledge of day-to-day health and production practices in the large animal sector so they demand a high standard of veterinary care, he added.
That can be intimidating, especially for an associate veterinarian fresh out of school.
Combined with tight margins, extensive terrain to cover between calls and the significant on-call hours required of almost any rural practice, it can be tough for rural practices to compete against the work-life balance and high salaries offered by companion animal medicine.
“I’ve often mused about whether food animal veterinary medicine education has reached a crossroads and should be separate from companion animal veterinary medicine,” said Swackhammer. “We really require something more than just the basic DVM program.”
Connecting veterinarian students early in their education with private farm animal practice and providing on-the-job mentoring could offer better understanding around the demands, said Dr. Tye Perrett. Then there would be fewer surprises.
Perrett is a co-author of the Impact of Recruitment and Retention of Food Animal Veterinarians on the U.S. Food Supply research paper released in January 2020.
Large animal practices that offer associate veterinarians informal professional development via mentoring could provide a greater connection to the profession and the community, he added.
During his tenure as a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Swackhammer said the most significant challenge in farm services was finding calls that allow 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 the school expose students to high daily case numbers, challenges around time management and experience in dealing with unexpected situations.
“The University of Calgary already has a distributed community model. They don’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 new 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.
The other component, which is less discussed but significant, is how to manage the rigours of the veterinary profession in a rural area and how to be professional.
What if a veterinarian spends two hours on a procedure and the cow dies?
“Not only is that tough for the veterinarian to swallow, its tough for the producer to swallow too.”
The veterinarian’s reaction and professional approach could significantly affect the client relationship in the future, said Perrett. Beyond the emotional connection a producer has to the herd, the financial component could also be significant and that’s a lot for a veterinarian to manage.
As demand grows for agriculture to feed more people more sustainably, especially when it comes to food animal production, large-animal veterinarians need to use technology to increase efficiency, said Perrett.
“It’s going to require the use of out-of-the-box thinking. Veterinarians are very well positioned to help with that, (but) it may not be traditional practice in that sense.”
Perrett, a beef feedlot veterinarian, said large geographical areas and increased travel time are a challenge to efficient use of veterinary skills. The technological push for remote work-life solutions could streamline time management and create opportunities for veterinarians to address issues that sometimes get pushed aside.
“In our practice, we do a lot remotely. And we’ve learned quite a bit about what we can do better and more of,” he said, suggesting tele-triage technology could streamline the need to attend every call in person and allow for all clients to access a higher level of service.
Spurred by COVID-19 protocols, Swackhammer’s practice introduced a telehealth component using phone calls, photographs and video chats in non-emergency calls or those that didn’t require an on-farm visit.
The client paid for the professional time it took to provide a case assessment, diagnose and develop a treatment plan.
In addition to technological advances, Perret said a population-based approach to food animal health, in addition to individual care, could better equip veterinarians to meet client’s ongoing needs more efficiently.
It takes a slightly different skillset and veterinary interest, but it could provide an opportunity for practitioners to live closer to an urban centre.
“Now we can service a larger geographical area. There are lots of examples of that in the dairy, beef, swine and poultry industries where veterinarians don’t have to be so close in proximity but still provide value to the producers because they’re looking for veterinary expertise, but it may not require you to drive out there on an emergency basis,” said Perrett.
In many cases, it would also allow veterinarians to manage herd health on a scheduled basis, he added.
“There are all sorts of other things we can bring to the table, and veterinarians are positioned extremely well to do that,” Perrett said. “But we have to be close enough to the industry we’re serving so we understand what they’re looking for, and that’s evolving.”