One morning this winter, Sam Nielsen, a second-year veterinary student, cut out of class early to catch the activity in the large animal barn. He had heard about a new patient, a cow that couldn’t walk and was pretty far along into a pregnancy.
As the WSU veterinarians examined the Wagyu cross, they diagnosed a variety of ailments, including serious knee damage. What made it even more interesting was the discovery that she was carrying not one, but two, calves.
“I had to go see,” says Sam, who is hoping to someday have his own practice working with large animals. Missing an anesthesia clinic for a C-section delivery, Sam stood outside the stall and watched the team move quickly to lift the tiny black calves from the cow and then briskly rub them into breathing on their own. As the students sutured the cow, Sam headed off to his next class, his head full of the drama.
Having grown up in rural Utah the son of a veterinarian, Sam has seen many deliveries. From an early age, he loved to ride along to work with his father. “I’d hide behind a shrub when the bus came and then tell the old man it left without me.” For the country veterinarian, it was often easier to take Sam along to a farm than drive him to school. “I had a weird childhood,” says Sam. “I once brought horse teeth for show and tell.” Later, during high school and college, Sam would help his father with nearly every aspect of his veterinary work including euthanizing sick cattle and assisting with necropsies to diagnose the source of illness. Even though he’s seen his father head off to work at all hours, suffer injuries from the livestock, and grouse about the weather—that’s the life that Sam wants.
Sam is the exception among veterinary students. The majority of his classmates come from urban and suburban homes, most are women, and most are headed for companion animal practices.
According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, only about 20 percent of all veterinarians will work with food animals, some in private practice and some for government or industry. And there’s concern about that percentage trending down. To fill future need, says a recent report from the AAVMC, about one in five new graduates each year will need to go into the large animal field. “The colleges and the veterinary profession have now reached a critical decision point, which may determine the overall contribution of the veterinary profession to the nation’s future,” states the report.
Food animal experts are often the first to identify emerging diseases in livestock. Because veterinarians are on the front lines identifying sick animals, preventing viruses, and improving livestock conditions, a shortage of large animal veterinarians could compromise the country’s food supply and public health .
Why a shortage? Perhaps because now there are more women than men in veterinary school, and women are less interested in large animal work. Or maybe it’s the preponderance of students who have no interest in a rural lifestyle. It may be money—a small animal focus is just more lucrative. Those ideas are probably oversimplified, caution the faculty at WSU. But one thing is certain. Veterinary practices are changing.
“There’s definitely a trend, and it’s getting scary,” says Randy McGraw, a large animal veterinarian who practices out of Colfax. When McGraw opened his clinic about 25 years ago, he treated nothing but large animals. Today three-quarters of his practice is small animal because the large animals are gone. “I tell people I’ve been driving half the cows out of the county since I started,” he says. Doing a quick count in his head, he says he believes between 21 and 24 herds have gone from the Palouse in three years. “There’s still cows out there,” he says, but not enough to keep him in business. In fact, Whitman is one of those counties where the cattle left before the veterinarians did. McGraw is one of eight in the county available to treat about 3,500 large, or agriculture, animals.
Early one Monday this winter, a couple waits in McGraw’s office with a crate full of cats. Carefully noting their names and histories, McGraw takes them one at a time back to the kennels. He returns and tells the owners that their animals will be neutered and ready to go home in the afternoon.
McGraw doesn’t make much money on the procedure, basically charging the costs of the tools and drugs. He keeps the price low because he wants to sterilize as many of the community’s pets as possible. Not only do we need to keep the populations in check, he says, but statistics show that 75 percent of those that get hit by cars haven’t been spayed or neutered.
Before the couple pulls away, his assistant Jenny has the first cat on the table and is putting him to sleep. The heart monitor beeps and a country song croons out of the radio. Occasionally the veterinarian utters instructions to his assistant, but mostly they’re working quickly injecting anesthesia, performing the surgery. Within half-an-hour, all three animals are done and McGraw is on the phone scheduling an appointment with an owner of a sick dog.
Then he heads out to his truck, a hulking Toyota Tundra, the back of which is filled with a white fiberglass contraption with doors and drawers that hold his mobile clinic. Most large animal veterinarians require a mobile set up, but for many who are just out of school and are loaded with large student loans, the costs of a truck, a mobile clinic (a used one can run several thousand dollars), and all the tools and medicines needed, is almost prohibitive.
As he turns down a country road, McGraw talks about the changes in farming he’s seen since starting his practice. Pointing out the empty barns, he talks about a time when every wheat farm had cattle. In the years when the price of wheat was low, farmers might make up the difference with their cattle sales, and vice versa, says McGraw. “They were diversified.”
But then farming changed. Drain tiles took the water out of the low-lying pasture land, making it available to wheat. And then the government enacted strict guidelines about grazing in riparian areas. Add to that changes in lifestyle: Now fewer farmers are willing to be on the farm every day to tend livestock. “I can’t tell you how many farmers have told me, ‘As soon as Dad dies, these cows are gone,’” he says.
What remains are a few farmers like Tom Kammerzell who lives on the Colfax-area homestead his grandparents built in the 1930s. He and his wife Cheryl are raising registered Highland cattle, about 100 head. But he also has a day job with the school district. Kammerzell is already in the yard when McGraw drives up. In front of the large white barn, several calves wait in a pen. “I like working with cows best of all,” says McGraw. “They’re generally easy and predictable.”
These heifer calves are due for their brucellosis vaccination. Brucellosis is an animal disease that can spread to people, and one for which heifers must be vaccinated before they are transported across state lines. McGraw opens his truck bed and pulls out his equipment: a pail of sanitizer, ear tags, and several syringes. As he and the farmer put each animal into the chute so he can administer the shots, he handles them gently. “In some way I have to hurt every animal I touch,” he says. “I like to minimize that.”
With Kammerzell’s help he loads them one by one into the chute, injects them, and tags their ears. The whole process takes about 15 minutes. “Most things I can do myself,” says Kammerzell. But when he runs into something he can’t handle, like a difficult birth or a sick animal, he turns to McGraw. “There are no midnight phone calls, but I have called him 5:30, 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening,” says the farmer.
He knows he’s lu
cky to have a veterinarian nearby, as well as the WSU animal hospital just 20 minutes away. There are farmers around the state who have nearly no resources. “I have friends ranching in the Yakima Valley and the upper Okanagan,” he says. “If they have a big problem, I don’t know what they do.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 494 counties in the country have large herds of livestock and no veterinarians to care for them. In Washington that includes Garfield County, which has 10,000 head of cattle, and Grays Harbor County, which has 11,000.
“As farming operations become more consolidated, the links in the family farming chain—and the important exposure to the veterinarians who help these families care for their animals—are weakening, leading to fewer food supply veterinarians,” Ron DeHaven, CEO of the AVMA, recently testified during a U.S. Senate hearing. The same applies to federal inspection agencies, he said. “Unfortunately, the number of veterinarians available to serve in key public health roles does not meet current demand, and the situation will only get worse without aggressive intervention now.”
The whole notion of veterinary medicine is only a few hundred years old. At its inception the focus was on large animals, particularly those used in agriculture. The world’s first college of veterinary medicine was formed in the 1700s in Lyon, France, in response to an epidemic afflicting horses.
When Washington’s land-grant school (now WSU) was established, one of its core missions was the instruction of veterinary arts—specifically to train veterinarians to treat ailing livestock. The college opened its School of Veterinary Science in 1899, with three students and a shed. The program quickly expanded and included a weekly free clinic for local animals. Today WSU’s College of Veterinarian Medicine is the fifth-oldest veterinary school still in operation in the country.
One of the key dates in the history of the college as well as that of veterinary medicine in Washington was November 13, 1914, when two cattle cars on a train from the Midwest arrived in Spokane carrying animals that had been exposed to foot-and-mouth disease. The animals were quarantined and the disease was kept from spreading, emphasizing to the people of Washington how vital it was to have experts who specialized in animal medicine and how they served the public good.
For decades most of the training at the veterinary hospital focused on large animals. In 1922, for example, the case load was 80 percent horses and 20 percent cattle. When John Gorham started his veterinary courses in the 1940s, he and his classmates were trained to do everything—particularly as it pertained to livestock. “Small animal wasn’t such a specialty then,” he says. In addition to learning to treat sick animals of all sizes, the students learned about meat and milk inspection, things veterinary inspectors now often learn on the job after graduating.
Gorham, who has worked at WSU as a veterinary research scientist for more than a half-century noticed a change away from large animals back in the 1960s. “Maybe before that even,” he says. “It was a slow thing.”
As farming changed, as well as the types of students attracted to veterinary medicine and an increase in public interest in small animal welfare, the school built up its small animal instruction.
Whether a student wants to work with large animals cannot be a criterion when admitting students to the highly competitive veterinary program at WSU. Still, it is a question in the back of many minds. One professor, John Gay, has been thinking about it a lot and wondering if more could be done to recruit students to work in the food animal realm.
Gay grew up on a ranch in Montana and after receiving his doctorate of veterinary medicine from WSU worked with cattle for five years. He went on to earn a doctorate in epidemiology and specializes in diseases that affect cattle.
This concern prompted Washington’s state legislature to pass a law creating scholarships for two students each year who go on to work as an agriculture animal veterinarian in the state.
Alexis Campbell is a fourth-year veterinary student who has hung on to her dream of working with dairy animals. “I grew up on a dairy in southern Idaho, and I really enjoy the cattle and horse work,” she says.
This year she has traveled the region visiting rural practices seeking advice and maybe even a job. During her breaks, she has sought out internships with rural veterinarians and is currently working at a dairy-focused practice in Sunnyside, Washington. “Some people have tried to steer me to a small animal practice,” she says. “But the rural veterinarians, most of them older gentlemen, haven’t been discouraging at all.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, earnings may be a factor in deciding what type of practice to have. Large animal veterinarians often work out of a truck and have to drive many miles at all hours to tend a patient or herd. And where a small animal veterinarian has fixed office hours and may charge several hundred dollars for something like a C-section for a cat, you can’t do that for a cow, says Alexis. If the procedure is too costly, a rancher will just put his livestock down.
Alexis isn’t too worried about finances, yet. “I haven’t done the math to find a bottom line of where I could survive, but a friend who graduated last year owing $110,000 in student loans figured she would need at least $45,000 a year to get by,” she says. Since the national average for a large animal practitioner is over $60,000, Alexis believes she’ll be able to make a living.
“You can go into a small practice and make more and work less and not have to go out at 2 a.m. to pull a calf,” she says. “But I want to follow through with why I went to veterinary school in the first place.”
After classes, Sam starts a project with some classmates and about nine cows from the WSU dairy herd. Over about an hour, they tag and give shots to the animals. Then, still feeling the chill of the winter afternoon, Sam wanders back to the warm large animal barn. “You mind if we check in on the cow that had the C-section?” he asks me. We round a corner to find a group of people milling around the pen. The black animal lies on the floor, dazed and immobile.
The owner had been agonizing over this cow for a week, says George Barrington, one of the veterinarian/instructors working on the case. She couldn’t walk, or even stand, and there was a crunching sound of bone on bone in her right leg. The farmer called the veterinary teaching hospital wondering whether he should put an end to her suffering.
“I said, ‘Bring her in, maybe we can make some lemonade out of this,’” says Barrington. Sam, nodding toward the room across from the pen, says, “We’ve got two little lemonades in there.” Inside on the floor in a tangle of towels and blankets are the babies, weak and asleep. Sam peers through the slit of a window. Satisfied, he turns back to the cow and the conversation about what happens next.
There isn’t much more to do for the mother, says Barrington. His colleague Steven Parish returns holding a captive bolt gun. Parish looks at Sam. “Do you want to do this?” Sam pauses just for a second and then holds his hand out. Everyone starts moving, gathering in the pen around the cow. Sam steps into the middle and pauses while his professors talk him through the next steps, where to place the gun on the animal’s forehead, and what should happen next.
He positions himself and pulls the trigger. Pop. The cow’s head drops, the body slumps. Her eyes go filmy. A rattle of breath and it’s over.
“All day long we’ve been thinking what’s fair to this cow,” says Barrington. “The best thing to do was to end her suffering.”
“I know,” Sam says after Barrington moves away, “That’s a big part of this job.”
“I’ve done this before with my old man,” Sam says later. “But it was different with so many people around. You just don’t want anything to go wrong.”
It’s past 5 p.m., and most of the workers and students have headed home from the animal hospital. Sam, instead, is slipping on sanitary blue booties on the other side of the compound. The cow he euthanized had been carried over on a fork lift and now the fourth-year students are going to perform a gross necropsy. Sam enters a large open room where the animal had been deposited on the floor. Four women in blue coveralls gather around the large animal, each wielding a seven-inch carving knife. They start to take tissue samples from the cow as well as remove its legs to determine the cause and extent of its injuries.
“Well, I thought it was going to be a quiet day,” says Sam. “What’s so great about being here at school is how much you can see and do first-hand. If I were watching this necropsy on a Power Point, I wouldn’t get nearly as much out of it.” He heads to a dissecting table where a student has taken the problem leg and is clearing away the tissue around the knee joint. “I have to see what was happening,” says Sam.
Sam is one of those students who has the capacity to work on any kind of animal, says Ahmed Tibary, an expert on large animal reproduction. “He fits well into our community of comparative veterinarians.” Some students come to WSU wanting to work on exotic animals with the goal of being something like a zoo veterinarian. “But before you work on a zebra, you have to work on a horse,” says Tibary. Sam goes the other way. He knows about horses and cows, and can extrapolate that to other animals.
Under Tibary’s guidance Sam is writing a paper about a rare ovarian cyst found in a cow in the WSU herd. An abstract for the academic paper had already been accepted. Now Sam has bred the cow and is following the behavior and health of the animal for his project. While Sam may be intent on pursuing a large animal practice, his advisors are pushing him to try out an academic perspective.
Working in the cold, choosing a life with large and sometimes dangerous animals—it isn’t going to be easy, Sam admits. People, including his own father, have tried to urge him away from a strictly large animal practice. Sam has been mulling over a few ideas, including heading toward the Midwest to work with large herds of cattle or settling into a mixed animal practice, as long as it’s rural. “I know it’s hard,” says Sam. “I’ve seen it first-hand growing up.”
As farming changes, there may be more jobs for students like Sam,who can work with a wide variety of animals. According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, which was released last February, the number of small farms is on the rise. And many of those small farms are diverse operations with multiple crops and a variety of livestock. While the number of large cattle farms has diminished, small farms and farms in areas that border urban communities are springing up.
“We used to say that mixed animal practice is dead,” says Dale Moore, WSU’s Extension veterinary outreach specialist. “That’s not true anymore.”
Moore has noted a new demand in Washington for mixed practice veterinarians. In many parts of the state, people have moved out of the city and settled on small properties with a few fruit trees, some cattle, maybe ducks or geese, or goats or sheep, she says.“They need information to raise these animals, and they need veterinary care.
“That’s not to say we don’t still need people in food supply veterinary medicine,” says Moore. There are jobs out there for veterinarians to work with cattle and dairy herds, to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. “For someone who wants to work with ag animals, there’s lots of opportunities,” she says.
Whether in Washington or somewhere else in the country, Sam and his family are willing to settle wherever there’s work. “As long as it’s rural and I can work with cattle,” says Sam. “I’m not in it for the money. It’s the life I want.”