Straight talk

Skills set

For this column, swine veterinarians were asked to comment on the following questions:

What skills have best served you in swine practice? How did you develop those skills? And what resources are needed to develop those skills?

From Sue Burlatschenko

“The first skill that has best served my practice is the one of listening. It’s difficult to solve most farm problems if you aren’t hearing what’s being said. I’ve found very often that people will talk about the problems in the barn and, during that discussion, one or two large clues will appear that either relate to the problem’s onset or will lead to the solution. If you are paying too much attention to the computer, you’re going to miss the big picture. Don’t ever forget the human element – people have bad days, they have failing marriages, sick relatives, or financial stresses. Barn routines can be tremendously influenced by personal issues. You need to be exquisitely aware of the impact of personal life on the professional. This includes us!

And I always listen to the pigs as well. They chatter in the barn, and by the tone of the ‘conversations’ you can decide if they are upset, or nervous, or content. Between the two inputs of people and pigs, some very good information can be gleaned.

These skills developed from earlier jobs held outside of and prior to my exit as a veterinarian from university, as well as from my early years in small animal practice. Any job that requires human interfacing – whether asking ‘do you want fries with that’ or providing customer service in a parts department – will certainly provide the training that you need down the road. There are, of course, some good courses offered in customer service – always an idea to step sideways, too, and take one or two. It can be very enlightening.

I consider that 60% of my practice is strictly dealing with people – and the way you interact with the human component often determines the success of your treatment-preventive medicine strategies.”

From Scott Dee

“The most helpful skills I have developed over the years have been critical-thinking skills, the knowledge of how to properly set up on-farm experiments and how to write scientifically. I learned these skills as I pursued my PhD degree during practice. During this time, I was very well mentored by my graduate committee (Han Soo Joo, the late Carlos Pijoan, Tom Molitor, Jim Collins, and Sagar Goyal). I was also very fortunate to have a practice mentor (Rod Johnson) who encouraged lifelong learning. Therefore, for others to develop these skills, we must challenge AASV members to pursue graduate degrees, a commitment of both time and financial resources. These lifelong learners also need mentors. The willingness to mentor students and members at both the faculty and the practice level is a great way to give back to the profession.”

From Paul Armbrecht

“In this world of high tech, I’m a bit of a dinosaur! I have started my 37th year of practice and the most exciting thing every day is the people! I am blessed to be able to do swine practice with independent producers so I am able to speak directly with the owner(s). This face-to-face communication is the best way to address issues. While writing reports is helpful and doing spread sheets can pinpoint specific concerns, it is my total belief that SOMEONE needs to be looking at the pigs! That process cannot be done at a computer or a distant location. Thus, the necessity to understand pigs and people is more important. The personal communication skills needed require both the ability to LISTEN and the ability to discern the real issues.

Those skills require time and effort to develop and perfection is never achieved! I was fortunate to have a 4-H leader and a vocational ‘ag’ instructor who encouraged activities to accomplish learning of those communication skills. Public speaking and extemporaneous speaking for an audience were key activities that helped me to realize techniques of communicating.

Thus, any professional should have a trustworthy mentor to give guidance and support to develop those attributes. Commitment by the individual is far more necessary than extensive resources. People need to have good self esteem and focus on helping the client, rather than focusing on not making mistakes.

The only way to get experience in dealing with people is to START and just do it!”

From Gordon Spronk

“There is a wide variety of skills that have served me well in swine practice. First of all there are basic skills needed to be a ‘swine vet’: the skill of bleeding pigs; the skill of making an observation, diagnosis, treatment and prevention plan; the skill of arranging a day of work; the skill of working both with animals and the primary caretakers of the animals. These are all primary, basic skills that allow you onto the farm (and allow you the privilege of returning to the farm!). But there are additional skills that I have needed to survive in the changing business and industry environment that we all live in.

These additional skills include the skill of communication (eg, written, verbal, presentation); the skill of managing a group of people; the skill of understanding how to conduct yourself in a board room; and the skill of conducting a productive meeting. The business skills include knowing how to read a balance sheet and profit-loss statement, the skill of administration, and the skill of interaction with a wide variety of industry contacts. Other skills include the skill of data collection, collation, and presentation, and the skill of reading people – their body language, facial expressions. And, finally, there is the skill of listening (the hardest one of all!) rather than immediately jumping to a conclusion. The reader should be aware that I have not yet fully developed all these skills. I continue to hone them and will for the rest of my life.

I was mentored very early in my career that learning is life long and I have come to believe that the quest to acquire all the skills cited above is a lifelong journey – you never really arrive at the end, you simply continue farther down the path and measure progress, not necessarily the endpoint.

The development of the basic skills needed to be completed in veterinary school and honed in the first years out in the field. The development of the other skills will continue until the day I die.

I have used a wide variety of methods to develop the skills cited above: I read books, attend AASV, Leman, and other industry meetings; I ask others how I can improve, and I have continued to use mentors to open me up to ‘tell me the things that I do not know that I do not know.’ I attend other sessions outside the industry and apply them to my practice – these include business training sessions at the university level, other leadership sessions, and interaction in small-group settings to hone leadership skills.

There are many opportunities to learn new skills: my point is that it begins with the correct attitude of a ‘teachable spirit.’

The resources needed are many, but really come down to a basic few: the right attitude (do I wish to learn more about this?); time (how is my time best used and what will I need to give up in order to learn this?); and the right teacher (I have come to believe that having a good teacher-mentor goes a long way in speeding up the learning curve!). And finally, the last resource would be good business partners who understand that the more skills that a team member has, the better all the team will be – I need to thank my partners for allowing me the opportunity (and resources) to continue to learn new skills!”

From Butch Baker

“There are a lot of things that could be attributed to a successful career in swine medicine and practice. Everyone has those moments of revelation. The Executive Veterinary Program, Certificate in Swine Health Management was certainly one of those for me. The opportunity to spend 2 years interacting with LeRoy Biehl, Alex Hogg, Rod Johnson, Clark Huinker, John Baker, Mike Dierenfeld, Tim Loula, Tom Wetzell, Brad Thacker, Art Mueller, Warren Wilson, Tom Folkerts, Cary Christensen, and all of the others in our class of 42 was a decisive turning point. It was a classic moment of getting on the ‘right bus’ – a time in my life, probably the first time, when I actually knew the severe limitations in my knowledge. ‘Lifetime learning’ is one of our buzz phrases but is relative and overused. There is a great ocean of stuff to learn – it stretches to infinity. Making a difference is far more than just learning from others or even experimentation. It is evidence-based application, constant knowledge upgrading, searching and finding solutions, and continuous improvement within systems and in your own personal life and endeavors. This process is as consistent as the seasons when successful.

With all that out of the way, the one single most important skill that has served me in swine practice, whether learned by chance or luck or by the examples given to me by my mother, father, and other mentors, is an understanding of the true meaning of service. Service in a veterinary context is all about willingness to ‘truly serve’ without reward as the primary objective. From my perspective, this requires placing financial gain below the primary objectives, which are service to family, customer, community, organizations – the list is long. There must be a certain love for helping others. Money will come as a by-product if you are a dedicated and enthusiastic service provider. This doesn’t mean that you should be ‘dumb’ about money, but a good attitude and dedicated interest in solving problems when coupled with sound science and financial knowledge will always lead to business success. Service is all about ethics and dedication.”

From Matt Ackerman

“First, people skills. The ability to listen to people and understand their concerns. The ability to relate to them in a way that you can learn from them, understand them and share your knowledge with them in a way that will help them be more successful. Second, the ability to learn from others. This is crucial at the farm level as well as the industry level. I learned almost everything I know from someone else. Third, the ability to analyze data – whether that is diagnostic data or production data in a way to help producers to make decisions. Finally, the ability to formulate a plan. It is key to be able to get input and buy-in from the whole team. I certainly don’t have it all figured out but these are the areas I am currently and constantly focusing on improving. The resources needed are great mentors, great peers, great clients, great industry support (ie, pharmaceutical, genetics, nutritional, educational) and great organizations like AASV.”

Tracy Ann Raef