December 2011
From the State Vet's Office

Looking for a Few Good Men…and Women

I would think, during Thanksgiving, most of us stopped to be thankful for so many of the things we take for granted. Our lives here in the United States are so much better than most of the rest of the world. We never give much thought that we do not have to light some oil lamp or a candle so we can see at night. We don’t think much about getting in our car and driving from one end of the state to the other in six or so hours, when in many parts of the world it would be a several day journey. I am sure, as we have reflected over our lives, we did think of many of the things we have grown accustomed to that make us so blessed to live here.

Since I have become interested in the sustainability of food and agriculture, I realize how truly blessed we are. I have never wondered where my next meal was coming from. In fact, we have such an abundance of choices that our problem more often is having to decide what to eat. I am thankful we have all of the ingredients it takes to have our safe and abundant food supply. And I am thankful we have young men and women who choose to go into food animal veterinary medicine which is vital to the sustainability of animal agriculture.

We are fortunate here in Alabama to have two universities training future food-animal veterinarians. We work with Tuskegee University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to make students aware of the need for veterinarians to perform regulatory duties necessary in areas like disease control and food safety. Myself and the staff from the USDA Veterinarian’s office met with seniors at both schools to explain the role of private veterinarians with state and federal governments. This is known as being an "accredited veterinarian" and allows the private veterinarian to do government work. While the number of veterinarians who consider themselves to be food-animal practitioners was less than 10 percent of the profession back in 2006, our universities continue to turn out intelligent, enthusiastic, dedicated individuals who choose to go into food-animal medicine.

For the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about the shortage of food-animal veterinarians. Even here in Alabama, a state with two great universities graduating well-trained veterinarians, there are areas where it is difficult or even next to impossible to get a veterinarian to come out and deliver a calf. I am not sure what the solution to this problem is, but the shortage of veterinarians to do traditional food-animal practice in some areas becomes an issue of mathematics. With many students graduating from veterinary school today with well over $100,000 worth of debt, it is impossible to work in a practice that doesn’t pay enough to service their debt and buy an occasional coke and pack of crackers in the afternoon. That doesn’t mean there are not veterinarians who would rather be going on farm call than staying in the clinic. It is often just a matter of economic survival. I keep looking for the book, Simple Solutions to Complex Problems. Someone told me the other day, not only has the book not been written yet, it probably won’t be any time in the foreseeable future.

I can remember, when I was a kid and even in my very early adulthood, pulling into a service station where someone would come out to the car, pump the gas, check the oil and clean your windshield. Some of you reading this may know of a place like that still existing, but I don’t. For right now, at least, I am okay with pumping my gas, checking my oil and cleaning my windshield. Down the road, when I am 82, I may wish those old service stations were still around. The problem is I contributed to their extinction. I would always buy gas where it was a few cents cheaper, even if I did have to get out and pump the gas. So I don’t mean it as disrespect to anyone when I say, in some ways, we have all contributed to the shortage of food animals in some rural areas.

I realize economics comes into play on both sides of the fence in this situation. Part of being a good manager is to keep production costs down. However, there are certain practices worth the investment. Two of these practices are pregnancy checking cows and having breeding-soundness checks done on bulls. With a good many of our cattle producers raising cattle as a hobby or as a supplemental income source, I can understand a person wanting to give Babe a second chance if she doesn’t breed this year. After all, the kids did raise her on a bottle. But who among us wouldn’t benefit from knowing we could sell non-breeders and save the money used to feed them through the winter? Breeding-soundness exams make the most sense of all. That is really where it all starts. If a bull is sub-fertile or infertile, it is not only expensive to feed him, but it can be devastating to the small producer who has only one bull. The point I want to make is that if a producer has the local veterinarian out to pregnant check his cows and perform breeding soundness exams on the bulls that veterinarian is likely to be there to answer those late night or holiday emergency calls like delivering a calf. On the other hand, if the only time the local veterinarian hears from a producer is at bedtime on Christmas Eve needing to deliver a calf from a cow that has been in labor all day, the next time he may tell you he is no longer seeing large animals…it just didn’t make sense economically.

A few years ago, I was privileged to get to go to Brazil on a USDA site visit to evaluate one of their state’s practices to keep foot-and-mouth disease out. It was quite an awakening to me to find out their food-animal veterinarians either worked for the government or for a company. There were few if any private veterinarians practicing food-animal medicine in that state. There are, however, veterinarians in private practice there…doing small-animal medicine…in big cities.

Yes sir, I am certainly thankful we have two veterinary schools in our state graduating men and women who are capable of helping to sustain animal agriculture. I am thankful, in today’s environment where people want less government involvement in their lives, private practitioners who are federally accredited are able to do things like write health certificates. No other country in the world allows private veterinarians to carry out regulatory work. After all, we are only looking for a few good men and women. I encourage you to do whatever you can to support your local food animal practitioner.

Now if I could only figure out how to get my gas pumped and oil checked by the time I turn 82, I think we will be alright.

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for the state of Alabama.