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Swine DVMs out-earn colleagues, study shows

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Aug 01, 2005

CHICAGO —Veterinarians concentrating in swine medicine gross nearly $110,000 annually, leading all practitioner categories and disproving a widespread belief that food animal DVMs rank low in wage potential.

That's according to results from a business practices study commissioned by the American Veterinary Medical Association and Pfizer Animal Health. Conducted last year by Brakke Consulting, the report tallies results from a 14-page questionnaire completed by 17,063 practitioners from all veterinary medical sectors.


Swine veterinarians top income poll
But as swine veterinarians reportedly enjoy robust practice economies, their bovine counterparts earn nearly $20,000 less annually, with mixed animal, small animal and equine veterinarians representing midlevel salaries (see related chart below).

Considering there are roughly 1,200 swine practitioners in the United States and Canada, the numbers are impressive, says John Volk, Brakke senior consultant.

"Veterinary medicine is a capital-intensive profession," he says. "Food animal practice is the oldest type of practice, and the swine guys have got it right. They figured things out a long time ago."

Herd health model What swine veterinarians have adopted is a service model change, explains Dr. Rick Sibbel, past president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV). Giant swine operations have forced veterinarians to focus on herd populations rather than individual animals. While swine practitioners have embraced this brand of practice, "the rest of the food animal sectors are taking a while to get there," Sibbel says.


Swine veterinarians top income poll
"The average client for a typical food animal veterinarian has 300 to 400 animals on a farm," he says. "The average pig plant has more than 20 times that. Those numbers have pushed veterinary service to a different level, and that's feeding into the earnings equation quite a bit."

Specializing in swine population medicine in Abilene, Kan., Dr. Lisa Tokach confirms there is a "mindset change."

"People aren't used to paying for a veterinarian's time, but that's different in swine practice," she says. "We work as consultants, focusing on the health of entire populations, looking at production records and making recommendations. We focus a lot more on service and less on product."

Clients' business attitudes also factor, Sibbel says.

"Much of the cattle industry is steeped in tradition; they are not yet businessmen," he says. "Swine farmers recognize business. In order for swine veterinarians to do well by clientele, we have to be really good at it."

Challenging the numbers So do bovine veterinarians, who say the survey results were a surprise. While swine veterinarians earn more, bovine veterinarians, particularly those dealing with dairy cattle, employ a consultant approach. The difference: Plenty of small cattle operations remain viable compared to the swine industry, which is dominated by a handful of pig farming giants.

"Comparing us to swine practice is like apples to oranges," says Dr. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. "I know plenty of our members who earn a decent living. I don't think the study reflects our area of the profession accurately. The results are not the impression I get from our membership."

Keeping pace As for AASV members, Sibbel expects that 140,000 pigs in North America will keep average salaries for swine veterinarians escalating.

"We've become experts in building management, tax preparation, permits and ventilation," he says. "I tend to call us agricultural scientists. We're about way more than just animal issues."