Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2012, 3:50 pm

Wanted: Gutsy young veterinarians

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By Erik Lacitis

Photo: McClatchy Newspapers
Veterinary student Jenny Trice, an intern at a dairy, finds giving a cow medicine can be tough.
OUTLOOK, Wash. -- 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," said 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? That's another story.

"Veterinarians can make more money treating companion animals," said state veterinarian Dr. Leonard Eldridge.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."

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 17 percent of all veterinarians work with food-supply animals.

Out in the boonies, says Dr. Rene Carlson, president of the association, a food-animal vet is on call nights and weekends. "Nobody else but you," she said.

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 said, "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, said Carlson. Fewer vets in the countryside, she said, could result in less medical care available to treat ill animals or prevent diseases.

And, said 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, Carlson said.

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's 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 said. "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, coordinator of the internship program, wants to hear.
He is an associate professor of cattle-production medicine at the Universityof Idaho and teaches at WSU.

"Many of our students have never been on a farm," he said. "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."

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.