Diagnosing a sick animal is easy compared to detecting the cause of an operation’s cultural failure. The symptoms can be increased employee turnover and animal health protocols that aren’t executed properly. Whether losing calves or clients, both can reflect poorly on veterinarians and the ranch owners.

The solution is investing in human capital, and veterinarians can play an important role in helping owners identify cultural failures and fix them. There’s no single-dose treatment for creating engaged employees—either on the farm or in a veterinarian’s own practice.

Recognizing the need for improved engagement is the first step. Then, listening to employees can help guide specific changes within an operation. Plus, engaging a practice’s staff can help a clinic grow and succeed along with its clients.

Investing in Human Capital

Veterinarians actually work with people most of the time, not livestock. The reliance on others to implement recommendations made Lawrence D. Firkins, DVM, M.S., MBA, realize he needed some additional skills beyond just science.

“I’m comfortable understanding cattle and pigs; it’s the people aspect I needed to find a better approach towards,” recalls Dr. Firkins, who is now a professor, Assistant Dean for Public Engagement and swine extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. “I’m a work-in-progress, at best, in developing human capital. None of that comes natural to me. As a veterinarian, my success or failure is largely dependent on other people. The veterinarian is completely dependent on others when it comes to making sure what is recommended actually takes place.”

Employees that are “engaged” in an operation’s success are ones that aren’t simply there for a paycheck. To move beyond just earning an income, management should communicate the operation’s overall goals clearly and make the staff feel as though each individual is working towards a larger goal.

Dr. Firkins found help developing such skills in the Executive Veterinary Program in Swine Health Management at the University of Illinois, a program which he now directs. In fact, helping others improve their management skills has become his life-long passion.

These “softer” skills can translate easily from cattle and hogs to general business. In every case, the first step is communicating the overall goal of the business beyond the day-to-day tasks. It creates a sense of purpose for all involved.

“As I travel around the country, the family farms that don’t have turnover rates do a wonderful job of communicating the relevance of the employee’s responsibility—what they contribute to the well-being of the organization,” Dr. Firkins says. “They do a good job of communicating why they are in business, whether it’s a commitment to sustainable agriculture, or responsibility to the land their great-grandparents farmed.”

Veterinary consultants can provide an outside perspective for owners who aren’t aware of how their employees view their job. However, all practitioners can set aside time to ask open ended questions while they’re at the farm. This can help provide insight into the culture of an organization, recommends Larry L. Coleman, DVM, owner of Veterinary Care & Consultation in Broken Bow, NE.


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“The world loves a listener,” Dr. Coleman says. “I’ve spent most of my life doing walk throughs, and I see that after a period of time of asking questions of the employee—how things are going, are things getting done—those turn into conversations where I’m privy to what’s going on with the relationships in the operation.”

It’s been his experience in 33 years of practice in cattle and swine operations that the veterinarian can act as a go-between. Dr. Coleman notes those conversations can be awkward. He recommends overcoming the initial difficulty by keeping in mind the ultimate goal of animal health and welfare while maintaining the employee’s confidentiality.

“Sometimes those conversations are received warmly, or I find out I didn’t have the right impression,” he says. “When we’re talking about the care of animals—where we literally have seconds to look at each animal and assess its well-being—we need that employee emotionally caring for that animal. I don’t think you have proper animal care unless you have proper engagement.”

Research suggests only one in four employees are emotionally engaged on the job, which is of particular concern when that figure is applied to food animal production, Dr. Coleman says.