If you feel like a train is coming at you, you’re tied to the train tracks and a rattlesnake is slithering toward you, the last thing you want to do is panic and try to scare away the snake,” says Scott Crain, DVM. “All that happens then is that you get snake bit before getting hit by the train.”
Though tongue-in-cheek, Dr. Crain believes the analogy is instructive as veterinarians face dwindling cattle and client numbers.
Dr. Crain is founder and owner of Cattle Health Management Network (CHMN), a feedlot consulting practice at Meade, KS.
Dr. Scott Crain
Up front, Dr. Crain is one of those folks who peers generally regard as brilliant or nuts.
There’s not much middle ground.
He’s unconcerned one way or the other.
“Our industry has been shrinking for years. We all know that. That’s seeing the tracks,” Dr. Crain says. “Then you hear the train whistle; that’s the client you lost last month because of cattle and producer attrition.”
Viewing the World Differently
Dichotomous impressions of Dr. Crain stem in part from the fact that he views the world, cattle care and the veterinary profession through a different lens than most.
“As veterinarians, we may be wrong, but we’re never in doubt,” says Dr. Crain with a laugh.
Like other veterinarians, Dr. Crain uses previous experience and science-based evidence to make decisions. When pondering how to improve his decision making for clients, Dr. Crain keeps in mind, “Data is a stick with two ends; science-based evidence on one end and science-based deception on the other. If you forget that you don’t have all of the evidence, the data can become science-based deception.”
He shares an example.
A couple of years ago, CHMN was seeing a few long-day cattle with no visible symptoms heading to the dead pile. The only thing Dr. Crain could find were signs loosely associated with some sort of an acute bacterial infection of an unknown source, so that’s what he figured it was—unknown. In the same time period, long-time CHMN veterinarian, Nate McDonald, identified in the same class of deads, subtle intestinal lesions associated with mucosal disease and bovine viral diarrheal virus (BVDV). That made no sense to them because the cattle had been vaccinated multiple times with multiple strains of BVDV. Those events percolated awhile. Long story, short, Dr. Crain pulled blood from pen mates of long-day cattle that had died. He had it screened for viruses and bacteria. BVDV strain 1b lit up the scoreboard.
“We’d checked the BVDV box. The cattle were vaccinated multiple times for it. We never knew it could show up in the heart. Everything we thought we knew at that point said that’s not what it could be.” (Read further on about real-time pathogen surveillance.)
Then, some new-arrival cattle were breaking hard. Necropsies showed no lung lesions, but some with the minor heart lesions associated with histophilus. Culture and sensitivity produced nothing, however virus isolation demonstrated an overwhelming level of bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) 1b in the heart.
Dr. Crain believes that assuming you could be wrong means looking for why that may be true. “The opposite of that is assuming you’re right, which means collecting existing data to defend your decision,” Dr. Crain says. “If you spend your time defending your decision, you do nothing to improve. Asking if it could be better is more instructive than trying to prove why you’re right.”
As for unconventional thinking, also consider that Dr. Crain and his wife, Lori, have two daughters—Lissa Leigh, a freshman at Kansas State University, her parent’s alma mater. The other, Bobbie Annie, is a sophomore in high school also headed that direction. Both want to become veterinarians. Though proud his kids want to follow in his professional footsteps, Dr. Crain is trying his best to discourage them from it, at least when it comes to consideration of a traditional large animal or small animal practice.
“Everything is shrinking, cattle numbers, equine numbers, small animal numbers,” Dr. Crain says. “Though animal numbers are shrinking, there are more veterinarians. It costs up to $250,000 to go to vet school. It can take 15 years to pay off student loans; that’s how long it took me.”
Most people ask young people what they want to be or what kind of business they want to own. Dr. Crain asks a simpler question: How much money do you want to make?
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Rather than a job or profession defining him, Dr. Crain has always been more about doing what he enjoys, but making sure that provides enough revenue to live the kind of life he wants. That’s one reason, by design, he’s a serial entrepreneur.
Though CHMN serves feedlots with an annual capacity of about 1.5 million head, saying that Dr. Crain is a feedlot veterinarian is akin to saying Bill Gates is a computer programmer.
In the name of serving his clients, Dr. Crain has developed a range of new products and services over the years, ranging from Cattle Information Network (a data-based feedlot management software system) to real-time pathogen surveillance (and associated development of autogenous and commercial vaccines), to the VeriPrime Food Safety Cooperative (VPFSC), to his latest mobile X-ray-based pneumonia detection system. And, that’s a short list.
Cattle Information Network
Cattle Information Network (CIN) was a central feedlot information management system. Briefly, it took daily operating data from participating feed yards, pooled and analyzed the data each evening. The next morning, the feed yard manager could see how his pens were performing relative to a regional benchmark. They could see problems developing in real-time. You can find pieces, parts and elements of that system incorporated into current systems today.
Dr. Crain sold CIN to eMerge Interactive in January of 1999 at the front end of that company’s short-lived heyday. As part of the deal, he went to work for eMerge, helping flesh out a visionary array of products and services that was to serve as a fulcrum to vertical industry cooperation and integration. In February of 2000, he was among a small cadre of eMerge folks ringing the opening bell at NASDAQ as eMerge went public, raising a total of $235 million.
CIN represented Dr. Crain’s third patent. He filed for his first patent when he was a freshman in vet school. It was a mechanical patent for the oil field, where he was working outside of class to help pay for his education.
Incidentally, Dr. Crain received that first patent when he was a junior. He secured financing and sunk a wad into developing the patent into saleable equipment—about the time oil crashed in 1984.
“Failure is just a small success,” Dr. Crain says. “You realize you won’t do that again. I’m not going to win them all. Failure isn’t a measure of success. Success is how many failures can you have but continue to move ahead positively.”
Real-Time Pathogen Surveillance
Real-time pathogen surveillance grew from the aforementioned BVD example. Working with Texas Vet Lab (TVL) based at San Angelo, Texas, Dr. Crain and Dr. McDonald discovered the cause of the late-day mortality in question was BVDV subtype 1b, a strain unaccounted for in the vaccines they were using. So, CHMN and TVL developed an autogenous vaccine. Ultimately, CHMN formed a coalition of likeminded veterinarians—Professional Veterinary Associates (PVA)—that collect and submit BVDV samples to a national databank. Through a process called antigenic cartography, PVA monitors the mutation of specific BVDV strains showing up in member yards and then develops autogenous vaccines to battle specific bugs.
Taking it a step further, CHMN and TVL developed a comprehensive, integrated pathogen surveillance protocol that hinges upon real-time diagnostic testing and reporting.
Using this approach, BVDV surveillance demonstrated an 80 percent reduction in BVDV-related disease and illness over the next two years in CHMN client yards, along with a corresponding reduction in death loss and morbidity.
“The value we are finding in continuous surveillance is that besides monitoring pathogens and sensitivity patterns in the deads, we have a reference point that is instructive on the likely pathogens and sensitivity patterns of other cattle arriving in the same time frame,” Dr. Crain says.
VeriPrime Food Safety Cooperative
VeriPrime Food Safety Cooperative (VPFSC) is a revolutionary concept that has been glacially slow when it comes to gaining traction. Simplistically, it is a member owned federation of cooperatives that decides how to improve beef safety preharvest, and pays members to do it. Consider E. coli interventions that can be applied at the feedlot and ranch, for example. Most everyone says reducing the prevalence of E. coli ahead of the packing house increases ultimate food safety. Most consumers believe such interventions would be positive. Far fewer consumers, Dr. Crain says, understand the success of preharvest E. coli interventions depends on industry-wide application. Although consumers would likely bear the final cost, so far, none of the packers, food service folks or retailers Dr. Crain has visited with have agreed to adopt this kind of added assurance.
X-Ray Pneumonia Detection System
Dr. Crain’s latest endeavor is an X-ray pneumonia detection system aimed at detecting lung lesions and subclinical pneumonia when cattle arrive at the feed yard.
“Obviously, the idea of using an X-ray is not original with me,” Dr. Crain says. “What’s new is the availability of digital technology that allows us to take X-rays in a matter of seconds.”
Though interest from feed yards has been more than positive, Dr. Crain says, “We don’t know if it has value in the field. There’s hardly any of this kind of data. We need to validate it.”
There are two things he is sure of.
First, he says he’s not smart enough to see subclinical bovine respiratory disease complex in every head. Second, doing things the way they have been done continues to stymie much cattle health progress at the feedlot level.
“Over the last several years, we (the industry) vaccinate more and more, treat more and more cattle with more and more expensive antibiotics and designer molecules and we’re losing more cattle,” Dr. Crain says. “This kind of data may provide us with some insight as to why that is.”
Aside from the entrepreneurial spirit behind these and other Dr. Crain creations, common themes include reverse thinking, proactive collaboration and the earnest belief an answer exists; it’s just a matter of shifting current thinking around enough to see it.
Of the former, Dr. Crain starts with the end in mind and works backward.
“But, critical thinking means evaluating evidence in order to make a decision,” Dr. Crain says. “By definition, you are limited to the evidence known to you; that can be a mental trap.”
Plus, Dr. Crain explains, “When you start talking about the pros and cons of something, creativity stops as soon as you focus on the cons. If I make the assumption that there is a better answer, then I’m led down a different path. When you focus on what you want to create rather than what your current thinking and experience deem possible, you place your thinking in a different zone.”
And you don’t worry about sharing the idea. One of Dr. Crain’s early mentors held more than 370 patents and a lucrative career. “He always told me the idea is one-tenth of one percent of it; execution is all the rest,” Dr. Crain says. “I’m open with sharing ideas because so much of the ultimate success of them comes down to execution.”
In fact, Dr. Crain likens having a degree in veterinary medicine to holding a patent: “It separates you from others and narrows the competition, but you still have to do something with it.”
Besides, Dr. Crain believes there aren’t new ideas as much as there are old ideas recovered and new applications developed.
For him, realigning existing puzzle pieces to create new solutions has often meant stepping outside the animal health box to visit with innovators in other disparate fields.
Consider VPFSC. He called and also travelled to meet with Dee Hock. Many may not know the name, but Hock is the founder and former CEO of Visa Credit Card Association. It was development of this unique organization that enables you to use a credit card of your choosing at about any retailer in the world.
Dr. Crain reads about how human medicine is attacking influenza and he ends up talking with scientists at University of Cambridge in England.
More recently, he has become involved with folks at Columbia University, sharing notes about what animal medicine and human medicine have to offer each other.
“What I learned is that you can pick up the phone and contact the people you read about. They’re approachable,” Dr. Crain says.
The Future From Here
Admittedly, with the industry in the midst of a paradigm shift—most everyone agreeing long-established production and market fundamentals are changing, but no one knowing where the other side is or what it looks like—panic is a perfectly normal first response.
Thinking about the shrinking industry pie again, Dr. Crain says, “It scares me. I don’t like change. I’m used to doing what I do. I think everyone’s first reaction is to sprint and grab your piece of the pie. That might work until you get tripped. Panic kills reasoning and creativity.”
Once you see the train tracks and hear the approaching train whistle, Dr. Crain figures the future depends on what you do next.
“I’m trying to make more money by serving my clients better,” Dr. Crain says. “Every day in our practice we ask ourselves how we can do a better job for the clients we have and make them more money. How do we make more money by helping them make more money? How do we find more clients to help make them more money?”
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