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Vet students learn farm animal skills on the job

2.2.2007

By Kathleen Holder

Something happened to Kayla Winn's career plans down on a Dixon dairy farm. Somewhere between learning to feed calves, ear-tag heifers, update computerized herd records, help deliver a calf and give intravenous fluids to a sick Holstein, the aspiring horse veterinarian discovered she could handle a 1,500-pound cow — and she liked working with cattle.

Before even starting her first classes at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Winn '06 began picturing herself in a mixed large-animal practice. "At this point, I'm really interested in livestock," Winn said.

Her interest in cattle is a promising sign for the dairy and ranching industries, which face growing shortages of food-animal veterinarians, and for a UC Davis summer program that introduces increasingly urban veterinary students to life on the farm.

The Early Veterinary Student Bovine Experience Program offers $2,500 scholarships to first- and second-year veterinary students, allowing them to spend five weeks on a commercial cattle operation each summer. Students who return for a second summer work with cattle veterinarians.

Winn, who learned to ride horses but got little exposure to livestock growing up in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, said working at the dairy "just looked like something to do over the summer." Now her family jokes about her becoming a "cowgirl veterinarian."

Despite UC Davis' historic association with cows — going back to its founding as the University Farm — and the proximity of campus cow barns to veterinary school buildings, few veterinary students today go into cattle or other large-animal practice.

The trend, seen at veterinary colleges nationwide, began in the World War II era when middle-class families began moving to the suburbs and often adopted dogs and cats as pets, said Brad Smith, director of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and associate dean of clinical programs.

Traditionally, large-animal veterinarians grew up on farms themselves. But the All Creatures Great and Small-style rural veterinarian described in James Herriot's folksy stories, in this country at least, has gone the way of rural life and small family farms. With less than 1 percent of the U.S. population living on farms, more and more veterinarians come from urban stock and go into small-animal practice in cities and suburbs.

The shortage of food-animal veterinarians alarms many veterinary leaders and public-safety experts, who say those veterinarians play critical roles in making sure meat and milk supplies are safe, preventing the spread of diseases from animals to people and ensuring the humane treatment of food animals.

California, the leading dairy state, would be hard hit economically if an epidemic disease were to spread among its 1.7 million dairy cows, Smith said.

More than 60 percent of North American veterinarians in private practice treat only cats, dogs and other small animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. About 14 percent specialize in large animals, including horses, with only 1 percent practicing exclusively on cattle.

In California, the trend is even more pronounced with nearly 80 percent of veterinarians in small-animal practice, according to a 2004 University of California task force report.

Nationwide, there are about 2,400 dairy veterinarians to care for 9.6 million dairy cows. The American Veterinary Medical Association, warning of potential threats to the health and safety of livestock and meat, recently forecast that demand for food animal vets could rise 12–13 percent, with a 4–5 percent shortfall, by 2016.

At UC Davis, the percentage of veterinary students going into small-animal practice has more than doubled over the past three decades — from 25 percent of seniors in 1976–80 to 58 percent in 2001–05 — while seniors pursuing large-animal, food-animal and mixed practices dropped from 17 percent to 11 percent, Smith said. Others pursue a Ph.D. or go into fields such as exotic pets, zoological animals and wildlife/ecosystem health.

Interest in food-animal medicine reached a low in 2001, when the field was selected by only six students in a graduating D.V.M. class of 103, Smith said.

Why the lack of interest?

Bennie Osburn, dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said a number of factors draw veterinary students into urban practices, including their own urban upbringings. "They have a tendency to want to go back to urban areas."

Economics also plays a role. With increases in costs of attending veterinary school, students typically graduate with debts exceeding $100,000 and often perceive companion-animal practice as a quicker route to paying their bills — though, in fact, starting salaries can be higher for dairy veterinarians. However, with a shortfall of veterinarians overall, the demand is high and opportunities good for graduates going into small-animal practice, Osburn said.

Moreover, many students attend veterinary school with the goal of caring for individual animals. While food-animal veterinarians also treat sick animals, the focus of most livestock practices today is on the health of entire herds.

Lifestyle choices also enter the equation, with many veterinarians seeing more opportunities in small-animal medicine to control their work hours, take time out to have children and live in larger communities where their spouses can pursue their own careers.

In addition, more than 80 percent of current veterinary students are women. Some express concerns about whether they could handle the physical demands of working with livestock, especially as they age.

Cattle veterinarians often do work long days and can be called in the middle of the night to treat a sick cow or deliver a calf. And the physical challenges are real.

"It's hard work," Smith said. "It's hot out there in the summer. You can get injured. These big cows — some of the Holsteins weigh 1,500–1,600 pounds — even if they don't mean to hurt you, they can hurt you. Elbows and shoulders get sore from palpating cows for pregnancy checks. Arms get caught in a gate."

Davis cattle veterinarian Tom Graham '77, D.V.M. '84, M.P.V.M. '84, Ph.D. '93, said he typically works 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. six days a week. He travels from Marysville to Lodi and may see 200 to 400 cows each day — a volume he said pales to the 600 to 800 cows treated daily by colleagues in dairy regions farther south.

Graham said he has never had trouble filling positions at his Davis-based practice. But shortages of cattle veterinarians are more common in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where California's dairy industry is most concentrated and herds often total 5,000 to 6,000 cows each.

And there, location is a factor.

Four students who recently completed clinical rounds at UC Davis' Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare were immediately offered $80,000 jobs at a Bakersfield veterinary practice, said center clinician Jim Reynolds. But all four declined, because they wanted to work in other parts of the state.

Large-animal practices do have their benefits. Veterinarians who select the field say they like working outdoors and the rewards of helping dairy owners and ranchers manage their herds in healthy and efficient ways.

Giving students an opportunity to experience those benefits first hand is a goal of the Early Veterinary Student Bovine Experience Program, launched in 2000. "We thought if we could catch these students early and give them some exposure to the area we would have a better chance of interesting them in careers in food-animal medicine and better train the ones who were already interested," Smith said.

The program initially focused on dairy cattle and started with seven students. It was expanded in 2005 to include beef cattle operations and now takes up to 20 students each summer. Donations from Pfizer Animal Health help cover student scholarships.

Smith said the program is a success, with a number of past participants going into dairy and other food-animal practices or mixed practice, seeing some livestock. One student who grew up in Los Angeles and participated in the program in 2000 is now a dairy veterinarian. "It was love at first sight," Smith said. "He loved the cows, the people on the dairy and everything about the experience."

With first-hand experience, students see that not all their concerns are legitimate.

Graham said food-animal veterinarians do not need physical bulk if they work smart. Although he is 6 foot 4 and 250 pounds, Graham said, "If anything, my size is a detriment because I'm physically capable of doing things that will permanently hurt me. Sometimes it's better to not do it and get some help. The bottom line is no dairyman is going to pay for you or your children if you break. There's not a cow or dairy that's worth getting hurt for."

Graham has mentored 10 to 12 veterinary students in the Early Bovine Veterinary Student Experience Program and about half those students decided to go into cattle practices. He has thought only three students were not cut out for it — but not because of their size. Attitude was more the issue, like one student who wanted to tell dairy producers that "they were doing it all wrong."

Winn said she learned on the Dixon dairy how to restrain cows to ear tag them or give IV fluids. "I'm pretty small. I can manage it just fine. It does take a lot of physical strength, but on a dairy there's usually somebody else who can help. There isn't anything that the guys can do that I can't do."

Kathleen Holder is associate editor of UC Davis Magazine. This story first appeared in the magazine's winter 2007 issue.


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