Chris Schneider, coordinator, NW Bovine Vet Experience Program: 208-885-7390, email@example.com
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
WSU fixing rural veterinarian shortage and protecting food supply by getting vet students into ranches, dairies
PULLMAN - Imagine a job where you are, literally, up to your armpits in work — and loving it.
As part of Jennifer Wilson’s summer jobs in 2009 and 2010, when she was a Washington State University veterinary student, she inserted her arm deep inside hundreds of heifers to determine whether they were pregnant. Working in rural areas where the number of cows greatly outnumbered the population of humans, she maneuvered around multitudes of manure piles, shooed away thousands of flies, and happily busied herself among a steady chorus of moos.
"I love cows and always have,” said Wilson, who, at 5-foot-2 inches is quick to point out that being a small female hasn’t hindered her ability to care for the half-ton animals.
"Sure, they’re big, but treat them right and they’re easygoing to be around. They’re even goofy. When they stick their tongues up their noses, it makes my day.”
Wilson, who graduated from WSU’s veterinary college this May, participated in the Northwest Bovine Vet Experience Program for two summers during her first and second years as a student. Each summer session was six weeks, during which she learned about day-to-day veterinary care and agriculture production of dairy cows — and got paid for doing it.
The experience was so enriching that Wilson is about to begin her career as a bovine veterinarian. This summer, she’s moving to Jerome, Idaho, with her husband and two young children, to work at a facility that’s home to 40,000 bleating calves. Fortunately for her, there’ll be no need to make barn calls.
"With the emphasis these days on preventative medicine, herds are managed and monitored onsite, whether something is wrong with them or not,” she said.
Hands on the food chain
The bovine veterinary program places WSU students on dairy farms and beef cattle feedlots in the Northwest, where they are mentored by veterinarians and industry managers, said program coordinator Chris Schneider, also an adjunct professor of herd production medicine at WSU.
"It’s a six-week, intensive mentoring program that we started in an effort to create highly qualified food-animal veterinarians to practice in Washington and Idaho,” he said. "Not only is it for veterinary students planning to specialize, but also for those who simply want to explore.”
And explore, they do. Whether milking and feeding cows at the Toledo Dairy in Kuna, Idaho, or delivering and vaccinating calves at the Cow Palace Dairy in Granger, Wash., it’s an opportunity for students to get their hands dirty in the field after being immersed in months of scientific classwork, said Schneider. Plus, they earn $2,500 while doing it.
"They’re paid to learn how to care for large animals and how to protect human health. As a result, one day they’ll be able to spot and eradicate illnesses that could impact humans. Having a hand on the food chain is a big responsibility and a rewarding one,” he said.
Launched in 2008 with a grant by the Idaho Dairy Association to fund four students, the bovine program now accepts 14 to 18 students each year, said Schneider, receiving additional funds from organizations such as WSU’s veterinary college, the Washington Dairy Federation and Pfizer Animal Health.
Farm vet or pet vet?
Schneider runs the program with Wayne Ayers of Caine Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Caldwell, Idaho. Their hope is to head off a shortage of food-animal veterinarians, caused, in part, because so many bovine specialists are graying.
The American Veterinary Medical Association sounded the alarm several years ago that old-time veterinarians were retiring, and the number of bovine specialists is dropping. For example, nationwide, 67-percent of the new veterinary graduates head for urban practices to treat companion pets, while only 8-percent move to rural areas to work with food-production animals, according to a study by the association.
Ensuring a safe food supply
Cats may be cuter, but good veterinary care for cows is crucial because they put food on our tables, said Craig Louder, who, like Wilson, worked two summers in the bovine program and just graduated from WSU’s veterinary college.
"People seem to know the important role that veterinarians play in ensuring the health of our pets, but I don’t think they realize how involved we are in ensuring the safety of their food,” said Louder. Having grown up on a small farm in Utah, he now enjoys working outdoors and can’t imagine the confines of a climate-controlled small animal practice.
Bovine specialists also ensure the animals are treated humanely, he said, meaning that the cowboy way of dump-feeding and forcing cattle to do things has pretty disappeared, he said.
"Along with better science, there’s an increased awareness of the animals’ needs. We oversee their birthing, nutrition, their environment and welfare, and we give medical treatment when they’re sick or hurt. It’s not just for their wellbeing, but it’s also for ours.”