Wanted: gutsy young veterinarians
A 4,000-cow dairy farm in Yakima County is one of the places Washington State University tries to get veterinary students interested in working with food animals — cows, pigs, chickens. These days, most young vets prefer the better hours, pay and air-conditioned setting of work as a city vet with animals such as dogs and cats.
Seattle Times staff reporter
OUTLOOK, Yakima County —
When a 1,200-pound or 1,300-pound dairy cow is giving birth to an 80-pound calf, sometimes the mom needs help. The baby is supposed to come out with its two front feet first, followed by its head.
But sometimes one of the feet is folded back, and so the veterinarian — with polymer gloves that go up to the shoulder — has to reach inside and wrap a chrome obstetrical chain around the baby's legs.
This is definitely not for the squeamish; it's real-life muckiness.
"Normally, we like to have them calve on their own. But she was a smaller heifer, having a hard time, and this was her first time. You step in and help her. You pull when she's contracting," says Jenny Trice.
Here at DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, a farm on 1,200 acres, with some 4,000 cows, up to 20 calves a day are born.
The cows produce 400,000 pounds of milk a day (some 47,000 gallons).
It does keep a veterinarian busy.
Trice, of Condon, Mont., just concluded her first year at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
She topped it off with a six-week internship at the farm — an internship designed to help combat a shortage of vet students interested in working in the "food-animal industry."
That would include dairy cows, cattle, chickens, pigs.
There is no lack of vets who want to work in cities and treat "companion animals" — basically cats and dogs.
But vets who will work out in farm country, especially rural areas such as in Eastern Washington? That's another story.
"Veterinarians can make more money treating companion animals," says Dr. Leonard Eldridge, who has the title of state veterinarian.
He's 71 and has decades of experience with food animals. "And, secondly, it's just that much harder to work with animals that are bigger than you are. It's easier to work in an air-conditioned office with cats and dogs."
In Garfield, Grays Harbor, Mason and Pend Oreille counties, there are no food-animal vets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association website. In Adams County, there is one available to treat 45,000 animals.
King County, so much closer to urban amenities, has 15 food-animal vets, which means one vet for every 1,800 farm animals.
Nationwide, the association says, only 17 percent of all veterinarians work with food-supply animals.
Out in the boonies, says Dr. René Carlson, president of the association, a food-animal vet is on call nights and weekends. "Nobody else but you," she says.
Besides the isolation, there is the issue of how much a young vet can earn in the countryside.
"There is not enough density of animals and people," Carlson says, "for them to be able to pay off their educational debt, and the average for that is $142,000 to $149,000."
That is cause for worry, says Carlson. Fewer vets in the countryside, she says, could result in less medical care available to treat ill animals or to prevent diseases.
And, says Carlson, "there will be less surveillance of animals coming into this country that are diseased."
To entice younger vets to try rural life for three years, a federal program gives new vets up to $25,000 a year for each of the three years to pay off their college costs.
The program is in its third year and it's too soon to evaluate its success, says Carlson.
But it may help, as could an internship program such as WSU's six-week Bovine Veterinary Experience Program, which pays interns $2,500 to work six weeks on Northwest dairy and cattle farms.
That program began in 2008, and 15 students now take part each summer.
It is good news for the dairy business that Trice is enthusiastic about her internship — not just because she has a 22-year-old's hopefulness, but also because she plans to make cows her life's career.
"I love this atmosphere. I like being outside. I like dairy cows," she says. "When you think about it, some cows are producing 120 pounds of milk a day. To turn feed into all that milk, that's amazing."
That is exactly what Dr. Chris Schneider, the coordinator of the internship program, wants to hear.
He is an associate professor of cattle-production medicine at the University of Idaho and also teaches at WSU.
"Many of our students have never been on a farm," he says. "The important thing to me is that people think of big farms as some type of corporation farming. The reality is that they are family-run. These are regular people who are fun to hang out with. The food-animal veterinarian becomes one of their closest family friends."
The DeRuyter Brothers Dairy is such a place, started by in 1976 by Jake and Nick DeRuyter, and now run by Jake and his wife, Genny.
She is the daughter of a dairy-farm manager.
But these days, the large farm isn't quite like the rustic one portrayed in James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small."
In an office above a barn, a huge circular board is divided into the months of the year. Each cow had a spot on the pie, noting when it was bred, how much milk it produced and so on.
The farm stopped using it around 1990, says Genny DeRuyter.
"It was all done manually, and it was very complex and took a lot of time to maintain," she says.
Now, each cow has an RFID chip in its ear, and when the veterinarian passes an electronic wand by it, a small screen on the wand immediately displays the cow's entire history, from birth to any medical issues.
Schneider says that these days, with most vet grads being women (of 96 graduates in WSU's class of 2012, only 14 are men), the internship program also wants to acclimate student vets to the mostly male world of workers at dairies.
Trice says she's had no problems.
She says, "The guys here have spoiled me. If they think I'm thirsty, they bring me water, Popsicles. They bring me lunch — tamales, tacos, chimichangas."
She's also picking up Spanish, as the farmworkers tend to be Hispanic, and she tries to use the Spanish that she knows. "Somehow we figure it out," she says.
Kelly Reed, 30, is the vet who is contracted by DeRuyter Brothers to manage the herd, and who oversaw Trice.
As to why more women than men are becoming vets, Reed says that perhaps "more men are drawn to careers in computers and technology. It's the nurturing aspect of females that draws them to veterinary medicine."
Her parents had a hobby farm in northern New York, says Reed, and she grew up around hogs and sheep.
"I knew I always wanted to work with animals," says Reed. In a summer job at a dairy farm, she says, "I was intrigued by things most people find gross."
For example, extracting a cancerous eye from a cow, "that basically saved the cow's life."
And doing such a surgery with local anesthesia, while the cow was standing up.
"They're very hardy," says Reed.
Does she get attached to the cows?
"Well, I have a certain attachment to them. I have a favorite cow. No. 5993. She's only 4 years old. She has a personality," says Reed.
When No. 5993 was moved to a different pen, and she wanted to return to her old pen with cow friends she knew, No. 5993 stood by the fence and bellowed.
The employees granted her wish.
But Reed also knows what, in the end, a farm cow's life is about.
"Their job is to produce meat and milk," she says.
At the dairy farm, the day continues for Trice.
She keeps an eye on a cow that's about to give birth. It's wobbling around, with a protruding water sac.
Trice maneuvers her to a shady, quiet spot in a separate pen.
She watches one of the employees use a tractor and a sling to lift a cow from a tub that had been filled with cold water.
The cow had been limping, and spending time in the water helped her soreness.
At the dairy farm, Trice is obviously in her element.
She says, "If you go out to the middle of a lot, within five minutes, you'll have three-fourths of the cows standing around you, sniffing you. They're so curious, wanting to know what's going on. Sometimes you don't realize that you're 130 pounds and they're like 1,300 pounds."
Could she ever work as a city vet?
"I don't think so," says Trice. "I grew up in rural Montana. I enjoy that type of living. And I do like cows."
Just a few more Jenny Trices, that's all the industry is looking for.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org