Ft. Collins, CO, USA
The last several decades have brought many new challenges and changes to veterinary medical education. Companion animal medicine, including equine medicine, has become the predominant interest area for veterinary students, mirroring changes in American society and its expectations of the profession. In the late 20th century, and the early 21st century, only a small minority of veterinary students has special interest and focus on livestock-related studies and professional work after graduation.
Looking at current and future needs for food animal education within the professional veterinary curriculum, there are many points of discussion. What level of training does an entry level food animal practitioner need? Given the specialization of livestock production systems, how focused versus general should we make our food animal programs? How much focus should we place on production system management versus disease diagnosis and management? How do we serve the learning needs of the generalist rural practitioner versus the specialty production system veterinarian? How do we attract and retain students with focused interest in food animal veterinary careers? These types of questions are being embraced by faculty at most veterinary colleges in North America and elsewhere. It is equally important to think about what and how we teach non-food animal students about food animal medicine.
The veterinary profession plays an extremely important role in working with food animal agriculture for the benefit of our society. The profession is recognized for its expertise in maintaining animal health and protecting people from disease acquired from eating animal-origin foods. Meanwhile, PVM student classes have extremely diverse backgrounds and professional goals, with some students having significant background in food animal production and strong inclination to focus on food animal problems in their professional pursuits, while other students are at the other end of the spectrum regarding livestock production concerns. One of our challenges is to help students achieve an understanding of this field and the basis for participating in some of the important public discourse that faces our society now and in the future.
At Colorado State University we have structured a course to provide food animal production, food quality assurance and human food safety training that meets the professional needs of students at both ends of the spectrum of previous background experience and long term career goals. We expect the course to challenge students from all backgrounds and to promote an appreciation of their role as animal health professionals in helping our society deal with issues in animal agriculture. This course is mandatory for all veterinary students, is offered in the first year of the curriculum and is named 'food animal production and food safety'.
There are different levels of information about livestock and animal origin food production that are important to producers, veterinarians and the society at large. How important a particular body of information or knowledge may be is quite dependent on how one expects to use that information. The content and expectations of this freshman food animal course is based upon distinctions between three different levels of relevant material.
There is a factual knowledge base that typically forms the core of animal science coursework and is very important to a working knowledge of livestock production systems. Such material might include production numbers (milk per cow, or piglets farrowed per sow), or features of production animals that influence their management (nutritional requirements and feeding systems, gestation length, breeding times) etc. While this knowledge base is important to those working with the industries, and for appreciating and discussing level 2 and 3 material (described below) it is not very exciting to many students, nor is it particularly meaningful or relevant for non-livestock veterinarians unless it has a context. Further, it is difficult to develop consensus on what level of detail to include and exclude. This level of information is available as textbook material that can be easily accessed when the need arises, so arguably much of it is not important material for every veterinarian to have memorized. To this end there are good animal science textbooks that are recommended to access for background information.
For the purpose of teaching this course we define level 2 information as material that helps the student understand the structure and function of the livestock industries. Such material includes how animals are acquired, moved, fed, how manure is removed, how producers are paid and their products are marketed, why livestock systems have evolved as they have over the last 100 years, etc. This information is a primary focus of teaching during class time. This information and knowledge is highly relevant to the general society, because it has a lot to do with food safety, food costs and availability, environmental and other impacts of livestock production. This is the level where public policy impacts occur as they shape changes in livestock production systems. This knowledge allows veterinarians who will not be engaged in food animal care to discuss production issues intelligently, which is a prime objective of the course. Further, it provides a context and rationale for students to read and familiarize themselves with level 1 information, without necessitating a memorizing approach.
Level 3 information attends to real 'issues in livestock production'. In this context an 'issue' is a complex, multidisciplinary problem that does not have a readily defined solution and that has special or public importance. Veterinarians are often considered to be reliable sources of advice and knowledge about these issues by the public at large. Such material includes concerns about natural resource use, public policy impacts on livestock production systems, animal waste management, animal welfare, global food availability, animal production system intensification, alternative production systems, zoonotic disease risks, etc. Meaningful discussion of these issues of high societal relevance requires an understanding of the background information described as levels 1 and 2, and unfortunately a small minority of the public has such background. During this course we identify factors that contribute to the development of these problems and identify where and how they arise. Time constraints in the course prevent us from exploring these issues in great depth, but they are presented and discussed in class and students are strongly encouraged to engage in further discussion outside of class.
There are some class periods dedicated to visiting livestock operations. These are intended to provide on-site opportunities to see the workings of livestock production units and to understand the types of management decisions producers make on a routine basis. Student groups of approximately 20 are formed and each group visits a different livestock facility. It is highly recommended that students sign up for a type of facility with which they are not familiar (e.g., a student who grew up on a ranch should not select a visit to a cow/calf producer). Included in the trips are dairies, commercial and seedstock beef cow/calf operations, beef feedlots, sheep feedlots, commercial and purebred sheep operations, goat dairies, and meat poultry operations.
Homework is routinely assigned to help establish a reasonable basis for discussion. The majority of the homework is required reading from the course handout. While some of the reading involves background information about livestock production, other material includes some of the current thinking about relevant issues in food production and agriculture and is usually interesting reading for the students. Additionally, questions requiring short answers are posed periodically throughout the semester. Responses are meant to be thoughtful answers that do not exceed one page and are expected to list references. These assignments plus the book report are used for evaluation.
Ten books have been selected that involve different issues in livestock or food production or related concerns. All students are required to read one of these books. Students can propose reading an alternative book on an individual basis. Each student must write a report on the book they have chosen. Students may choose to review the book as a synopsis, critique its content, or argue alternative viewpoints.
This course has been very well received by the students. For me it has been the biggest challenge in my teaching career. I have tried to make it serve many purposes, including the encouragement of education and thoughtful participation in public discourse. I believe it helps students begin to discriminate between good and poor information sources and between rational scientific arguments versus emotionally charged belief systems. I am intrigued to find a large number of students whose focus in veterinary medicine is companion animal practice, but who develop an appreciation of the importance of livestock production, and I hope they will be positive contributors to the education of their future clients about food production issues. Although it is not the purpose of the class to recruit food animal veterinarians, several students each year have decided to pursue livestock medicine after taking the class.
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