We recently had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Tera Barnhardt, the Dairy Quality Center (DQC) 2021 Veterinarian of the Year. Tera is a mom to a five- and three-year-old, and is currently expecting her third child. She grew up in southwest Kansas on a family farm and ranch where they grew crops, corn, cotton, soybeans, and also had cattle. A pivotal point for Tera was when she and her grandfather, an important person in her life, invested in some heifers, driving her into want to be more involved in the beef industry. Get to know Tera even more, along with the role she plays as a veterinarian!
I went to Kansas State University for my undergrad degree in Animal Science. I also got my Doctorate, and while getting my DVM at the time, I worked for Dr. Dan Thompson at the Beef Cattle Institute. I was able to do a Master’s research project about BQA (beef quality assurance) with Kansas feed yards while I was in graduate school. It was an amazing experience that got me hooked.
Dr. Dan Thomson was instrumental in getting my boots on the ground at a lot of Kansas feed yards. This welfare project really sparked my interest in BQA, and in ensuring that at the end of the day, we’re practicing medicine and raising animals in a way that our consumers have interest and confidence in our product. This is the nuts and bolts of BQA, DQC, and many of the producer-driven programs that my farms and clients participate in. It’s all about the end consumer having confidence in what we do. That’s what drives how I practice veterinary medicine every single day. This all comes back to my Master’s thesis project that I mentioned earlier. After I graduated and got my Master’s, I went and tried mixed animal practice. I did this for about two and a half years, but it just wasn’t where my heart was. At that point, I got a job offer with Cattle Empire, which at the time had around 250,000 head of cattle on feed and a 55,000 head calf ranch. With them, I got the opportunity to become an on-staff veterinarian, which was wonderful. The Cattle Empire family was very focused on the industry, which aligned well with my beliefs and passions for making sure consumers are comfortable with putting meat on their plates.
From there, in 2019 I went out on my own and started consulting. At that point I still wasn’t a dairy vet. I thought I was going to do feedyard medicine, especially since I loved beef and it was in my comfort zone. However, with my family dynamic I knew I couldn’t spend many nights out on the road or sleeping in hotels. I reached out to some local dairymen that I knew and respected and told them if they needed anything, to give me a call. They called me and said they needed a feedyard vet for dairy on beef calves. I instantly wanted in, and because of this new role I was spending a lot of time on dairies. Whether it was helping with management issues or learning the system, I became a dairy vet. And now I really do beef and dairy 50/50. It’s been an absolute blast because, at the end of the day, the dairy industry cannot forget that when we transition these girls from their milking career, they’re part of the beef industry. It’s often forgotten these cows are a huge portion of what consumers eat from a beef standpoint. Consumers don’t look at the dairy industry and think, ‘Oh, I bet that’s where all my hamburger comes from.’ It’s our responsibility to protect that commodity so when consumers start realizing this and asking questions, we have programs in place like DQC to show them that these animals are treated very well and it’s a good opportunity for our farms to stay sustainable.
At the end of the day, I’m a feedyard vet AND a dairy vet. Learning the dairy part of the industry was a huge challenge, but I’ve loved every minute of it. There isn’t a day in my career that I don’t learn something new. I’ll never forget a major takeaway early in my work with Cattle Empire. We were seeing some health challenges in the cattle, which were related to a silage issue. I sat down with the nutritionist and told him we needed to either abandon the silage, dilute it out, or come up with a solution. He drove me to the silage pit and had me stand at the base. He proceeded to tell me, “That’s a million and a half dollars’ worth of silage, we don’t abandon it.” When he said that he made me realize my decisions are a part of a big operation and the animal health side is a piece of the puzzle. I can’t solve issues by walking away; I must hit them head-on. It was monumental for me and taught me I need to always get my boots on the ground and always be very operational-minded. Part of sustainability is profitability, and our farmers must stay profitable. This laid the groundwork for how I like to practice and treat my clients. I don’t solve a lot of animal health issues; I solve a lot of operational issues. A big part of my time on farm is spent playing a bunch of different roles. Whether I’m an IT person one day, a counselor the next, or making sure no one blows up the milking barn by putting tin foil in the microwave, it’s always something different, but I love every minute.
When it comes to my clients I have about 45,000 milking cows in about 12 different barns. I go to several of their heifer yards with around 30,000 head of heifers. I work with backgrounding yards that raise about 15,000 head of dairy on beef cross animals. I have a couple of finishing yards that are about 70,000 head. I also work with two calf ranches. Everything is very intertwined, which can be difficult. But most of my clients want to do their best, push the envelope, and get better every single day. Those are the kind of people I want to work with and who make my job more fun. Ultimately, we’re feeding the world together.
I would have to say Dr. Dave Sjeklocha at Cattle Empire and Dr. Dan Thomson. They have both been very influential and saw a lot of potential in me early in my career. If I’ve made them proud, I’ve done my life’s work. Both would be my strongest mentors in how I practice veterinary medicine and how I treat people as a veterinarian.
I’ve spent a lot of time teaching our caretakers what DQC is and why programs like these exist. Once you teach them that, it really changes their attitude. Now that they understand why these audits are in place, my caretakers want to know… what are their results, how well they did, what their score was, and did they do better than last year? It’s been a fun teaching tool, and I definitely use DQC as an instrument to further educate and help them be better. I use it to point out their wins and opportunities for improvement.