If we don't do something different, nothing will change...

...and the future becomes quite predictable.

Current trends will continue and these trends are not good for our profession. Consider the following:

  • our income lags behind other professions,
  • there is economic evidence of a surplus of veterinarians,
  • animal care is delivered through a fragmented and inefficient system,
  • demand for veterinarians in food animal and feather industries is estimated to be flat at best, declining at worst, and
  • veterinarians lack some skills and aptitudes that result in economic success.

These are some of the conclusions reached in a recent study that was commissioned by AVMA. Here is some evidence that is given for these conclusions. The mean income for veterinary clinic owners and associates declined from 1985 till 1995 by 4.6% while that for physicians and dentists increased by 22.6 and 35.5%, respectively. A projection model predicted that only 3% more veterinarians working in the large animal practice segment are needed by the year 2015. Finally, opportunities will exist to expand into jobs currently held by non-veterinarians, but doing so will require either additional training or another degree.

Our core strength is the understanding and practice of health management. This includes developing sampling strategies, using the latest diagnostic techniques, interpreting the results, and developing treatment protocols, control strategies, and prevention methods. The need for this service will not diminish, but as systems of production consolidate, fewer veterinarians will be needed to oversee and carry out the health program.

In 1986, Dr. Ralph Vinson predicted that our pork production industry would need only 300 veterinarians to service its needs. The five largest production companies today, Smithfield, Premium Standard, Seaboard, Prestage, and Tysons have approximately 1.3 million sows, which is 21% of our national total. They have 15 "traditional" veterinary positions caring for the health of their production. Our industry will continue to consolidate into fewer hands thereby requiring fewer veterinarians caring for health and welfare of the pigs. Ralph's prediction is correct - unless we do something different.

Life would be a lot easier if things didn't change so quickly. Change has been happening since life began, only not as quickly as it seems to happen these days! Yogi Berra said, "The future just isn't like it used to be." There is a recently published book on change that you might enjoy reading called, "Who moved my cheese?" by Spencer Johnson. It's a quick read and gives you a different perspective on change. Briefly, four mice are accustomed to a certain path in a maze that leads them to their daily allotment of cheese. They become very used to this routine and it feels comfortable. But one day, they make their way through the maze to find that their cheese is gone! There was no warning, no preparation and no substitute. As we watch the mice respond, we can see ourselves reacting to similar circumstances. The story prompted me to think about what sources of income swine veterinarians might have today that might suddenly change. One that is surely vulnerable is the distribution of product. Businesses are cutting out the middle man left and right as we look around (e.g. Covisint, GlobalNetExchange, Transora and are a few examples). As our industry consolidates and looks for cost-cutting opportunities, this is a current source of cheese that we will lose.

Witness the recent rather dramatic changes that have been taking place in the egg production business. The United Egg Producers (UEP) has been working with one of their major customers, McDonalds, to define the housing conditions for the laying birds. A Scientific Advisory Council was established to work with McDonalds and UEP. The groups came to agreement on requiring among other things, approximately 50% more cage space / bird. One of the disturbing parts of this for me is that there was no veterinarian on the panel or in any of the advisory groups. I have always thought of the veterinarian as being the best person to evaluate the welfare of the animal or bird, but this occurrence emphasizes the fact that unless we take a lead in this arena, we will be left on the sidelines. This could easily happen with food safety also. As much as I believe the veterinarian is the logical person to develop and monitor on-farm food safety protocols, unless we take a leading position, someone else will do it.

We must diversify our service offerings to create new opportunities. One trend that is taking place is increasing concern on the part of our customers over how pigs are raised. This relates to the safety of the product both for pathogens and residues, the use of antibiotics in the rearing phase, and the welfare of the pigs regarding care and housing. Who will be responsible for assuring that specified rearing conditions are in fact, being practiced? Perhaps more importantly, who will be responsible for specifying these conditions? Whether this trend is a freight train or a steamroller is a matter of perspective, but the outcome is the same. That is, specific rearing conditions that are verified to be in place will be expected for every pound of pork consumed.

Your elected AASP (V) leadership and volunteer member colleagues are trying to develop educational programs that create opportunities for you in food safety, pig welfare, and process verification. In a recent article in JAVMA on educational needs for on-farm food safety programs for dairy herds, the authors stated that we clearly have opportunities in developing these programs. However, we don't know what they will look like and we don't know how we will be paid for these efforts. I am sure of one thing, however. Just as is happening with the UEP and McDonalds, it could be tomorrow that one of your customers will want all farms that provide product to them to produce it under specified, good management practices. This will include using facilities and transport vehicles that meet or exceed specified conditions.

The task for each of us is to decide if we believe in the opportunity that this presents and if so, be prepared when it knocks. Preparation will include being mentally open to change, raising your head up out of the daily routine on a regular basis so you can see the opportunity when it arrives, let go of portions of your current business that may be in decline, have the knowledge base to take advantage of the opportunities, enjoy the chase of the opportunity and finally, be ready to change again; "they keep moving the cheese".

I welcome your comments:

--Bob Morrison
612-625-9276 or