I have no reason to not believe it when I hear accounts of the growing scarcity of food animal veterinarians. And I am sure some of you producers reading this article have your own story of having to call a veterinarian from two or three counties away when you have veterinary medical needs for your cattle. Over the past several years, conversations have gone on to try to figure out how to fill the void. I am sure the solution is written somewhere in a book entitled "Simple Solutions to Complex Problems." I have just never been able to find that book in the local bookstore. So until we can figure out a way to increase the number of and accessibility to food animal veterinarians, I have some good news. They are not on the endangered species list. There is not some point in the near future when the last food animal practitioner will stand his calf jack in the corner, go home, sit in the rocking chair and the species will then be extinct. This is confirmed every year when I attend the Alabama Food Animal Veterinary Conference.
Sometime during the month of February back in 1992, the first Alabama Veterinary Association Food Animal Veterinary Conference was held at the 4-H Center in Columbiana. This past February, the 23rd Annual Food Animal Veterinary Conference was held. I have only missed one of the conferences since the beginning. Dr. Jim Floyd was the Extension veterinarian for Alabama at the time and had the vision and foresight to organize such a conference for a group of veterinarians who were finding it more difficult to get their required continuing education for the year at one meeting. The trend of veterinarians leaving mixed animal practice to go to strictly small animal practice was reflected in the continuing education subjects offered at many veterinary conferences. The menu was becoming more and more for small animal medicine and the large animal offerings placed a lot of emphasis on equine medicine. Now with 23 conferences behind us, the Alabama Food Animal Veterinary Conference has become something other states are looking to imitate.
The Food Animal Conference has become an institution to itself, with part of the attraction being its location at the 4-H Center. While most veterinary conferences are held at locations like the beach, Birmingham or Huntsville – places the spouses and family have things to do – the 4-H Center is pretty much off the beaten path. In fact, there’s not even a convenience store located close by. A few years ago, it was put to a vote whether the veterinarians wanted to move the conference to a location where there was more outside activity. The vote was overwhelmingly to stay put. So we continue to meet out in the middle of the woods just touching Lay Lake, a place where you have to walk to the top of the hill to get a cell phone signal!
There are certain parts of the format of the program that have made the conference unique. One of those is the annual Downie Award. That takes place on the Saturday night of the weekend meeting right after our traditional steak dinner. The Downie Award is given to the person who tells the funniest story about some job-related misfortune or awkward situation or just out-right wrecks with animals. I have practiced both large and small animal medicine and I can tell you the large animal stories trump my small animal stories 10 to 1. I think it evolves around the fact that food animal veterinarians often leave the controlled environment of their clinic and go out to do their work where the unknown factors can get pretty interesting.
One example of the unknown factors is this: A client calls and says he has a heifer calving. By the way, this is at one o’clock in the morning.
The veterinarian asks the simple question, "Is she up?"
The farmer says, "Yes."
The veterinarian gets up, puts his or her clothes on, and drives 20 miles to deliver the calf. Upon arriving the farmer shines his spotlight on the figure of a cow standing about 300 yards away in a 40-acre pasture.
In some dismay the veterinarian says, "I thought you said she was up."
To that the farmer replies, "She is up. Can’t you see her standing out there? She tried to lay down a couple of times, but we got her up and chased her around a little bit. She hasn’t been back down since we did that."
Maybe you can follow what I am saying. That is not the funny part. That simply sets things to deteriorate into a funny story … maybe not when it was happening, but certainly when it is retold. Anyway, the Downie Awards are worth the cost of registration. There are also practice tips that are shared so each practitioner doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Now let me get back to the conference itself. It has over the years provided your veterinarian with some of the most up-to-date, useful information out there that can be used for you, his or her client, with your bottom line. Topics have covered areas such as increasing reproductive efficiency, nutrition, quality assurance, forages, water quality, and health and disease prevention and treatment. The conference gives me and my federal counterpart an opportunity to update veterinarians on the latest topics such as BSE sampling, animal disease traceability, brucellosis, TB, trichomoniasis and all kinds of things involving regulatory medicine. The occasion to network face-to-face with other food animal veterinarians is, as the commercial says, priceless.
I love food animal veterinarians. They are the salt of the earth. They certainly do not do what they do for the money. It’s more of a higher calling because going out and doing a C-section on an angry sow is just not what most people have in mind when they open the letter that says, "Congratulations, you have been selected to be part of the freshman class beginning next August at Whatever Veterinary College, USA." But when you talk to those guys they have a passion for what they do. That is why they look forward to the sun coming up every day.
Dr. Soren Rodning, our present Extension veterinarian, is now in charge of seeing that the conference continues. Dr. Wolfe and Dr. Carson, from the Auburn Large Animal Clinic, have always played an important part in the success of the meeting. I do believe, though, that the biggest part of the success of the meeting has been the practitioners who continue to attend. I have heard that people at certain times of the year go to Guntersville State Park to see the bald eagles. Along those same lines, food animal veterinarian numbers may be diminishing. They may be more spread out. They may be driving farther to get all the bases covered. But if you want to see that they are not becoming extinct, just come to Columbiana on that weekend in February each year and you can get a close look at a large group of food animal practitioners, a group I am happy to consider myself a part of.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.