You’ve got to get your boots on the ground and be an extra set of eyes for your producers,” says Dan Thomson , DVM, Jones Professor of Production Medicine and Epidemiology at Kansas State University’s (KSU) College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Thomson is speaking about the assessments that are part of the nation’s Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, as well as the need for veterinarians to serve their clients with knowledge and service that extends beyond animal health issues .
“The challenge for veterinarians is that they have to stay ahead of the curve, ahead of the training their clients are receiving,” Dr. Thomson says.
In the case of BQA, consider that 3,600 producers became BQA certified online between February 15 and March 15. That’s when Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica , Inc. partnered with the BQA program to cover the $25-$50 certification cost of individual producers.
“Not only do veterinarians need to know BQA inside and out, they need to know how to translate that information into action,” emphasizes Dr. Thomson, who also serves as director of KSU’s Beef Cattle Institute which coordinates Animal Care Training , including online BQA training and BQA certification.
Translating information into action is the nexus where Dr. Thomson believes veterinarians need to focus in partnering with clients for the sake of animal care and operational sustainability.
Although BQA principles and the goal of unsurpassed animal care remain constant, Dr. Thomson explains, “It won’t be one set of best management practices that works for all operations. Based on the client’s technical ability, geography, resources, facilities, and the type and size of cattle, best management practices will be different. Best management practices  on a farm change from day to day based on the cattle arriving and the people who show up for work that day.”
Assessments Serve As Foundation For Improvement
If you’re unfamiliar with BQA, there are two primary tools. First is the training and education that enables certification. Next, are sector-specific assessment tools that can be downloaded for free at BQA.org .
Assessments are the tool that can transform BQA best management practices into a total quality management system by which improvement is an ongoing journey rather than a static destination.
“For cow-calf producers , I think the assessment is crucial for continuous improvement,” says Ryan Ruppert, BQA Senior Director. He speaks from his position overseeing national BQA efforts. But, he also speaks as a producer who has seen the transforming potential of BQA in his family’s Nebraska cow-calf operation when the veterinarian is a partner.
“Twenty years ago, we bought vaccines from our veterinarian, and he might come out to do a C-section . But, I don’t remember ever getting a lot of information from our veterinarian until we started working with Bob Bohlender,” Ruppert says.
Dr. Bohlender, a veterinarian at the Animal Clinic in North Platte, NE, is a BQA pioneer and firebrand who has long championed the synergy available when veterinarians, clients and other professionals work together to improve animal care and production.
“He became our herd consultant,” Ruppert says. “He didn’t come out to do C-sections or cut open deads; he was there to manage the health of our herd.”
When Dr. Bohlender began shifting some of his workload, the Rupperts began working with Kent Pieper, DVM at Farnam, NE.
“Here’s a guy who says to a client, ‘You need to work on cattle handling ,’ as an example,” Ruppert says. ‘Do the BQA assessment. I’ll come back in six months and do the same assessment and look at your records. Then, we’ll see how closely our assessments match and where improvements can be made.’”
“I’ve yet to conduct an assessment where the producer didn’t say, ‘This is a good deal, let’s continue doing it,’” Dr. Thomson says.
Even before formal assessments, Bob Smith, DVM, a consulting feedlot veterinarian based at Stillwater, OK, explains, “Veterinarians have unique involvement with dairy and beef producers in that they are at client operations for a variety of reasons, which allows them to conduct informal assessments about how BQA is being employed.” Dr. Smith has also been at the forefront of BQA leadership. Among other things, he was chairman of the committee that developed the industry’s Cattle Industry Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle .
“As veterinarians, we have to serve as teachers, mentors and role models for BQA,” Dr. Smith believes. “I look at assessments as an additional service we can provide to clients. The veterinarian should be poised to help clients implement and improve BQA. How many producers even know these assessments are available? Assessments provide an opportunity to look in a systematic way at everything that might impact animal care on their operation.”
Although producers are encouraged to conduct assessments themselves, never including outside expertise means leaving lots of opportunity on the table.
“If you do the assessment and it says you’re doing everything right, then you didn’t assess yourself correctly,” Ruppert says. “There’s always something you can be doing better.”
Part of the ill-founded confidence of self evaluation stems from the blindness spawned by familiarity. Reach for the jug of tea in your ice box long enough and chances are you’ll lose sight of the handsome fuzz growing on the leftovers from last year’s Christmas party.
Part of it stems from experience. No matter how good individual producers are at what they do, few have intimate knowledge of operations besides their own.
Speaking again from his family’s experience, Ruppert explains, “If you do the assessment yourself every time, you’ll miss things. You don’t have the breadth of experience of your veterinarian who hopefully has a couple dozen other clients.”
National Beef Quality Audit
Keep in mind there is an industry-wide assessment tool, too. It’s called the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA).
“The national audits are how we compare ourselves at one point in time to another,” Dr. Smith explains. “They help guide our research and educational efforts for further improvement.”
More and more, BQA and assessments are as much about the outside world as the operations employing the tools.
“The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) continues to tell us their members want to see more animal welfare work in the beef industry,” Ruppert says.
It’s not necessarily that FMI and others have a problem with how beef producers care for their stock, it’s that they don’t have a way to assess it. At the same time, pork and poultry producers are further ahead in providing those kinds of assessment tools.
That’s why records, written protocols and documentation are crucial to BQA.
“It’s like [Dr.] Dee Griffin always says,” Ruppert explains. “If you don’t write it down, then it never happened. You have no way to prove it.” Dr. Griffin is another BQA pioneer and lynchpin who is University of Nebraska’s Feedlot Production Management Veterinarian at the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center at Clay Center, NE.
“We’re seeing packers and retailers pay more attention to BQA, too,” Dr. Smith emphasizes. In the past several months he has helped three clients prepare for and undergo BQA based audits from retailers.
“Using BQA assessments  assure us that we’re doing things right,” Dr. Smith says. “These assessments also help us get ready for audits when our industry partners ask for them.”
“If you don’t have records, you can’t capture the added value associated with verifying animal health and your management practices,” Ruppert says. “You have no reference point for improvement.”
Think about BQA in the feedlot sector  which set the standard for other segments of the industry. Think about those audits being requested by packers and retailers. Because of their BQA efforts, logic suggests it wasn’t much of a stretch for feedyards to begin participating in and receiving added value from process verification programs associated with things like age and source verification.
“Especially with the cost of production today, as veterinarians, it’s imperative that we provide management advice in addition to health advice,” Dr. Smith says.
Doing so means strengthening the veterinarian client patient relationship (VCPR). It means becoming more involved with client goals and resources, providing nutritional advice, and ferreting through production records, Dr. Smith says.
It might even mean conducting in-house research trials, as Dr. Smith has done with clients, to evaluate the worth of a particular product or practice in a given situation.
Incidentally, for the veterinary community, Dr. Smith says, “A near-term goal should be getting an FDA approved, effective, affordable pain control  product that we can use for routine surgical procedures like castration and horn management, as well as for managing the pain associated with lameness.”
BQA Moving Forward
Push come to shove, Dr. Thomson stresses that veterinarians involved in a strong VCPR serve as the final word for cattle well being when questions arise.
“As veterinarians, we’re there to help clients develop best management practices,” Dr. Thomson explains. “But, when someone comes to the farm wondering about herd health and animal care, the veterinarian will provide the answer.
“I don’t know of anything more defensible in the public eye than producers being able to say they are caring for their cattle under the supervision of a veterinarian. It’s like saying you’re caring for your kids under the supervision of their doctor.”
Logically, Dr. Thomson expects the next major area of BQA to revolve around the environment and food safety.
Already, Ruppert says industry working groups are developing what would become BQA approved practices for such things as castration and dehorning .
“BQA is really a promise to consumers that we care about our cattle and understand how to care for them,” Ruppert says. “I really think for producers to get to the next level, to make BQA part of their culture and part of their business model, they need the broader perspective of their veterinarian. They need that perspective to help them identify the BQA concepts they need to work on and how they can implement them.”
Just as outside perspective elevates BQA within operations, Dr. Smith stresses cooperation within organizations is essential for BQA success .
“For BQA programs to be effective, it takes commitment from everyone, from the owner, to the manager, to the pen rider, to the person delivering feed,” Dr. Smith says. “We have to be constantly aware of employee turnover and the fact that newer employees might not yet be BQA certified. Client operations need to have a program established that allows employees to see their commitment to BQA. It should be included in the employee handbook  if there is one. There should be an opportunity for new employees to become BQA certified early in their employment. Special effort should be given to training what I term mid-level employees so that they can serve as trainers and mentors in order that everyone is performing on the same level in providing animal care.”
“It’s a fluid process; it will never be done,” Dr. Thomson says.
Though Dr. Smith is confident there are no glaring deficiencies in the current BQA program, he says, “We have to keep looking for areas where we can improve BQA and the well being of animals and touch all facets of the industry. BQA allows us to showcase our commitment and investment in nutrition, cattle handling, the environment, everything that is part of animal care.”
“I think BQA certification will be the first step going forward for cow-calf producers to verify their sustainability, their animal welfare and all of those other things,” Ruppert says.
Beyond the traditional role of helping clients with biosecurity  and disease control, Dr. Thomson believes the greatest value veterinarians will offer in the future is providing the kind of herd-wide information and consultation alluded to earlier.
“There is no group that will be more important than veterinarians to the family farm as society moves toward more regulation and transparency,” Dr. Thomson says.
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