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What is our role as veterinarians?

Andrea Harwell Published on 22 March 2010

The service a food animal veterinarian provides has dramatically changed over the past 50 years. In the past, food animal veterinarians awaited farm calls concerning the health of individual animals, which helped individual farms.

Today, food animal vets are the acting liaison for several production farms, both large and small. Vets are constantly communicating with the farmer’s nutritionist, as well as managers and reproduction specialists to increase profit through the health of the animals. We are also advocates for these farms, speaking on their behalf, in a consumer society that may not understand how its food is produced.



The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that the average age of a U.S. farm operator is 57 years old and the U.S. farm real estate average increased from $1,600 to $2,700 per acre. These numbers have significant ramifications; as fewer young adults return to the farm and more farm owners sell their land for a greater profit, our consumer society gets further and further from understanding where its food actually comes from. I am definitely not blaming anyone.

People have to make a living and dreams have to be chased, often far from home; but we still should show respect for the few farmers that remain by learning the process, hard work, dedication and management skills that go into maintaining our nation’s food supply. Without understanding the true story, we will likely be filled with the media’s version of how agriculture operates in the U.S., which is often a far cry from the truth.

A similar shift has happened in the veterinary world, as well. The average veterinary student is a white female with a suburban upbringing, in direct pursuit of a career in small animal medicine. Since there are a greater proportion of these students interested in this field, there will inevitably be fewer veterinary students contributing to the growing need for production animal veterinarians.

Some veterinary curriculums across the U.S. have evolved with the agricultural industry and have begun teaching classes focused on a herd health model of medicine, but not all. If we hope to fill the void of food animal vets in the U.S., then we need to enable students coming from a “non-farming” background to learn all that is required to be a reliable source of knowledge for an agricultural producer. Producers need and deserve a veterinarian that is able to provide counsel on multiple facets of the industry, including ag economics, industry standards, record analysis, nutrition and much more.

This is not to say food animal veterinarians have been completely pushed to the wayside. Each day, new opportunities arise in the agriculture field for food animal veterinarians. I receive daily digests that update me on the possibility of working with the USDA, FDA or working in a need-based rural community. There are conferences all over the U.S. that support production medicine and continuing education of veterinarians and students.


I read daily journal articles presented on various agriculture websites, which provide veterinarians with the newest technology, problems facing the industry and news from around the industry. However, these opportunities do not come easy, and finding a mentor in the field of food animal medicine remains difficult. That is why it is necessary for us to share knowledge and experiences in order to substantiate a thorough understanding of how best to provide a safe, reliable and nutritious food supply.

Just as I learned on the farm, it takes an entire community working hard to keep a farm going. Providing an ever-growing nation with a safe, affordable, nutritional supply of food takes a comprehensive team: farmers, ranchers, nutritionists, processors, consumers and more. As veterinarians, it is our role as trusted members of society to not only maintain the health of the herd, but also provide continuing education to producers and the consumers. With our knowledge and skill-sets as vets, it is our duty to: Inform producers of advanced medicine, new techniques and updated regulations; make it common knowledge to consumers that the agriculture industry actively complies with regulations mandated by government guidelines in order to ensure that the U.S. consumer receives the highest-quality produce; and, to remember that the agriculture industry is made up of good people – moms, dads, brothers and sisters – who are stewards of the land and the animals they raise, who want nothing more than to provide food for their nation. PD

Andrea Harwell is theAg Animal Club President in theCollege of Vet MedicineatOregon State University. Email Andrea Harwell.