From Farm to Table: Life as a Food Animal Veterinarian

Nicole Alvarez, Marketing and Communications Manager | Florida Veterinary Medical Association | Published: Issue 2 2024

Editor's Pick

Amidst the sweltering heat and the occasional afternoon storm in the heart of South Florida’s agriculture land, Dusti Small, DVM, MS, navigates her days with a blend of grit and compassion. As part of the 3.6% of veterinarians focused on the health of livestock in the United States, her story provides insight into the challenges and rewards of this vital yet demanding career.

Dr. Small’s daily schedule is determined well in advance by the agricultural operations who hire her. Her mornings are a flurry of activity as she tends to do routine reproductive work, often spending hours working with hundreds of animals. She needs to work fast before the animals or their handlers become overheated. From there, she gets in her truck and traverses the countryside, visiting smaller clients and responding to emergencies. The day ends with a computer screen, where she can sit and address the invoices, medical records, welfare reports, and state and federal regulatory paperwork for her clients. 

Amidst the hustle, Dr. Small finds herself grappling with the stark contrast between the dynamic outdoor work and the quieter moments spent behind a screen. “For me, one of my biggest personal challenges during my daily routine is the transition from action, action, action, all day outside, to sitting quietly in front of a computer doing paperwork,” she says. 

Dr. Dusti Small is a food animal veterinarian. In the U.S., there are approximately 83,000 clinical practices in operation, and Dr. Small is part of a small percentage dedicated to helping farmers and ranchers and ensuring the safety and quality of the country’s food supply.

It is a tough job, Dr. Small admits.

“No two days are alike. Some days, your clothes and your vehicle will be soaked through and stained with manure, sweat, tears, blood, mud, and more,” said Dr. Small.

The physical demands of the job are not the only challenges in her profession. In 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared 237 rural veterinary shortage areas across 47 states, including 18 Florida counties. Despite the shortage, only 2.7% of new veterinary school graduates in 2022 pursued full-time positions in food animal-exclusive and food animal-predominant practices. That puts immense pressure on those working in this vital sector.

Regardless, for Dr. Small, being a food animal veterinarian means being a part of something bigger. Her role extends beyond the confines of a veterinary clinic, encompassing the essential work of the broader agricultural community and its ongoing quest for innovation and sustainability.

Veterinary Care Across the Spectrum

In her practice, Dr. Small encounters a diverse array of challenges, from managing herd health to addressing individual health issues. Much of her work is focused on prevention, aimed at addressing individual health issues — such as acute diseases, parasites, nutrition, hygiene, or environmental issues — before they escalate into larger problems. This emphasis on preventative medicine is best for animal welfare. It’s also more cost-effective and efficient than treating disease after it occurs. Additionally, with restrictions on medicine use in animals intended for the food chain, effective preventative measures, such as vaccines, help limit the need for antibiotics. 

When faced with sick animals, her focus shifts to mitigating risks and preserving the health of the entire herd; assessing for or stopping a multi-animal morbidity or mortality event before it happens. “Frequently, these events are multifactorial and involve perfect-storm-type scenarios,” she said. 

She explains how a herd can maintain a healthy status quo for months or years with one or two important factors marginally inadequate, such as forage-to-concentrate balance or calorie, mineral, or salt deficiencies. If an additional factor vital for optimal health falls out of balance, such as parasite control, the status quo collapses and morbidity and mortality erupt among the population. 

Smaller farms that lack experience, infrastructure, specialized employees, and strict seasonal routines are more prone to encountering these challenges.

“One of the hardest conversations to have with a cattle owner is explaining that they essentially starved their animals of some essential component of health, and they genuinely didn’t even know it. It is much easier for an animal owner to accept animal loss if we can tell them the circumstances were out of their control,” said Dr. Small.

Dr. Small emphasized that despite the commercial nature of their relationship with animals, farmers and ranchers take pride in their animals and want to rear healthy, clean, well-fed animals. The animals are reared with dignity and harvested with respect for the sacrifice they are making.

The bulk of Okeechobee Livestock Veterinarians clients, Dr. Small’s multi-doctor practice, are large beef and dairy producers. However, her practice also tries to aid smaller sustenance farmers, hobby ranchettes, 4H and FFA projects, and farm animals kept in rescues or menagerie settings.

One memorable case involved a steer that refused to eat, leading Dr. Small on a journey to uncover the underlying cause. What she discovered — a piece of plastic lodged in the animal’s mouth —highlighted the complexities of care in this sector and the need for personalized veterinary attention.

“Every owner has very disparate goals and expectations for their animals, their property, and their veterinary care,” said Dr. Small. “It is not unusual for us to see hundreds of animals destined for the food chain all morning, followed by an emergency for a similar animal that has been removed from production to live out its life as a pet.”

Cutting-edge Care for Food Animals

Advancements in veterinary medicine have played a crucial role in improving animal care. Dr. Small points to innovations, such as autogenous vaccines tailored to address region-specific health challenges. Her practice has been submitting culture swabs from hundreds of pinkeye cases to a lab specializing in autogenous vaccines for the last five years. This allows them to offer a pinkeye vaccine to producers unlike any commercial pinkeye vaccine available, as it protects against most strains unique to South Florida.

Despite the innovative technologies, she compares her business model and daily client interactions as remarkably similar to those of James Herriot, author of the book series “All Creatures Great and Small,” which describes Herriot’s experience as a veterinarian in the 1940s and 1950s. Even with cloud-based software, antibiotics, and new treatment methods, Dr. Small describes challenges and rewards as largely unchanged. 

Navigating Ethical and Regulatory Landscapes

The physical toll of food animal practice is undeniable. Beyond hot temperatures and the vital importance of treating emergencies in large-scale food animal systems — even in hurricane conditions — these veterinarians are working with animals eight to 10 times their body mass. Farm animals are responsible for many disabling injuries. Broken restraint equipment or approaching an animal incorrectly could result in a life-altering or fatal incident.  

Large cattle ranches and dairies have facilities with greater restraint equipment and numerous employees trained to help with handling, but smaller clients rarely have the equipment or the manpower. The result is far less predictable client visits that sometimes require more physical work, mental problem-solving, and improvisation.

Navigating the ethical considerations inherent in food animal production and the regulatory system designed to protect U.S. food safety and security can also be a challenge. A food animal veterinarian abides by the same ethical considerations, state and federal laws, and regulations as other veterinarians. Yet they must also uphold standards and recommendations for optimal husbandry and health management set by producer-funded programs, such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA).

It’s a delicate balance between animal welfare, environmental stewardship, and consumer expectations. Many consumers have questions and concerns about the use of medications in livestock. Dr. Small emphasizes the importance of transparency and collaboration in addressing these complex issues.

Since 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration changed the status of certain antimicrobial drugs from over-the-counter to prescription. In addition, to add medically important antibiotics to feed or water for the mass treatment of animals, a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) is required. This must be written by a veterinarian with a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR).

“I have no reservations about feeding U.S. beef or other animal products to my children. I trust the science behind the approval of these medications and the guidelines set forth and rely on peer-reviewed studies that assure us meat is safe when all guidelines are followed,” said Dr. Small. 

Advice for Those Considering Food Animal Veterinary Medicine

For those considering a career in food animal veterinary medicine, Dr. Small offers a candid perspective. Pursuing a career as a veterinarian working in agriculture means accepting a lifestyle vastly different from most veterinary school graduates and rejecting the possibility of “glamor or riches,” said Dr. Small.

Yet she also highlights the profound sense of purpose that comes from contributing to the global food system and serving the communities that rely on it.

“You will be graced with knowing some of the toughest, hardest working people who would give you the slicker off their horse during a rainstorm while they get soaked. You will observe acts of kindness, chivalry, and grace that only happen on a farm, and occasionally you might score a pint of local, unprocessed honey or homegrown vegetables,” said Dr. Small. “And you will be gratified knowing that you worked hard today to help feed the world and you made someone’s farming operation run a little more efficiently, so maybe their legacy and yours will be passed down to one more generation,”

As Dr. Small continues her work on the front lines of food animal health, she stresses the importance of embracing the challenges and responsibilities of the job. Each day brings new complexities and opportunities to make a difference. In a profession marked by challenges, her unwavering commitment to animal welfare along with her humor, positivity, and love for her family and community shines brightly.

“In spite of my veterinary career being such an integral part of my everyday life, I appreciate that being a veterinarian is not the essence of my being; rather, it’s only the icing on the cake. I am the cake. If I should experience professional failure or someday face the reality of a career-ending injury   while I raise my own family, I know that my overarching goals to have a positive impact on agriculture and to help feed and provide for the world will not change. I’ll still be the cake, with or without the icing,” said Dr. Small.

The Benefits of Rural & Food Animal Practice

  • Strong sense of community bond with clients
  • Flexible schedule (kids can ride along with mobile practice!)
  • Outdoor working place
  • Relatively low overheard for business start-up in mobile practice
  • Lower cost of living in rural areas
  • Physical activity required for the job lends to healthfulness
  • Adventurers can appreciate visiting new work sites each day, opportunities for impovisation, endless action, and constant excitement!

Sources

  1. AVMA. (2022). 2022 AVMA Report on the Economic State of the Veterinary Profession 
  2. AVMA. (2023). 2023 AVMA Report on the Economic State of the Veterinary Profession. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/market-research-statistics-us-veterinarians
  3. AVMA. (2023, January 30). AVMA Reignites Congressional Efforts to Address Highest Level of Rural Veterinary Shortages [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/news/press-releases/avma-reignites-congressional-efforts-address-highest-level-rural-veterinary

Images courtesy of Dr. Dusti Small

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