The author is a partner in the Maria Stein Animal Clinic, Maria Stein, Ohio.

May is a wonderful time of new life. It means change. May is also the time when bright new veterinarians graduate from formal education into a lifetime of learning with dairy cows. Most understand that they have entered a profession focused on continuous improvement.

I tell young doctors and students that I have 28 years of experience each building on another, and that is very different from one year of experience 28 times. The difference is a quest for new knowledge, which may include reading from a dairy magazine almost every day, being active in discussion groups, or going to a continuing education event that offers new ideas and perspectives. Continuing education gives us a break from the burden of our “got to’s” and allows us to see the blessing our work is.

I’ve had times in my career, usually when I was overworked, but sometimes in the face of significant change in the industry or profession that I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, or just plain mad.

My clients and friends also go through this, and I understand. Yes, there have been times when my “give a darn was busted,” but I was always able to work through it. A big help is to attend a meeting for new ideas and perspectives.

Knowledge keeps changing
I ask myself, “How many times am I going to have to reinvent myself in this job?” The answer is, as many times as it takes to be relevant to current and future needs. That helps the growing pains some, but it doesn’t make it easy.

When I stepped out of the halls of formal education, I suffered from the myth that there would be a time when it got easy. That hasn’t happened, and I’ve stopped expecting it. It’s the same in every business, especially the dairy business.

As we neared graduation, one of our best teachers, Dr. Weisbrode, told us that we had been given a vast amount of knowledge. Unfortunately, only 20 percent was true and would be forever; 20 percent was untrue and always had been; and the remaining 60 percent would change over the course of our career. We would have to stay informed to know how it had changed.

Another challenge is we don’t know what falls into each of these categories. This is even more true for today’s new grads as the rate of new knowledge is accelerating. It’s the same on our farms. No matter who our teachers have been, the same breakdown applies. Lifelong learning is imperative.

Where sustainability exists
Continuing my education at the National Mastitis Council (NMC) annual meeting, I was given a new perspective on the challenges facing our industry. Marina von Keyserlingk, from the University of British Columbia, presented a talk called “Animal Welfare in the Context of Sustainability.” She showed three interlocking circles labeled social responsibility, environmental stewardship, and economics. Where all three of these circles intersect is where sustainability exists. This is using the definition of sustainability — “To endure as true, legal, or valid” — before it was hijacked by folks with agendas.

There are people who are quite knowledgeable in each of these circles, but it is the dairy farmer’s unique position to make all three work at once. As dairy farmers and those who advise them, we need to draw on the expertise of those with great knowledge in each of the circles. We must remind those watching the food producing game, people who have a lopsided two circle or isolated one circle view of our world, that those actually playing the game have to balance all three circles. To quote my daughter Molly when she was a college sustainability major in Chicago, “If you don’t put the economic piece in the sustainability puzzle, you’re just a hippy.”

As farmers, we get accused of focusing on finances. We focus on the economics because they are ever changing and often out of our control. I was taught at an early age that the first principle of land use is stewardship and conservation.

Consumers trust us to produce safe, wholesome food for them and to take seriously the responsibility to provide the best care for our animals. Like the formal veterinary education I completed decades ago, science will continue to change how we best care for the environment, meet our social responsibilities, and generate the income that allows for the next generation to continue the good challenge of growing safe wholesome food to feed the world.

Move forward with change
Dairy farmers are great adaptors to make the best out of any situation. Have you ever been amazed at the ability of an ag community to respond to a neighbor in need?

Our watershed has not applied any manure to fields in the winter for the past three years. Yet, I can remember manure distributing traveler guns tracking across snowfields, and at the time we thought we couldn’t dairy without that option.

A local dairyman, Fred, asked for training on the most humane methods for dehorning, moving down cows, and euthanasia. His grandfather, on the other hand, had once told me that these were his cows, and I had no business telling him how they should be handled.

Another client, Bill, asked how to make the risk of drug residues on his farm zero and what our responsibility is in antibiotic resistance. It was his uncle who long ago asked what drugs were being tested for so he would know what to use without getting caught.

How we make a profit in this business is still a common discussion. This centers around the science that helps us better understand the metabolic marvel the modern dairy cow has become. We constantly learn better ways to provide for her needs and ways to do that economically.

I’m proud of the conversation I had with Ben last Saturday after I evaluated a confusing case for him. We discussed how to trim switches, what the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) rules would mean for him, and how he’d seeded grass as a buffer around the perimeter of the dairy. As I washed my boots, he asked me to keep him and his brothers informed on other changes that are coming. He asked in a way that meant he was devoted to continuous learning so that his children would have an opportunity to be sustainable for another generation.

With dairymen like this to work with, the graduating class of veterinarians will have a great need for continuing education. That knowledge will provide Ben’s now preschool children with the information they will need to balance the circles of social responsibility, environmental stewardship, and economics in a way that is sustainable (to endure as true, legal, or valid) for generations to come.

This article appears on page 364 of the May 25, 2016 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.
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