Wanted: Gutsy young veterinarians

Working on farm is not for the faint of heart

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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 some 47,000 gallons of milk a day.

It does keep a veterinarian busy.

Ms. 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 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."

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

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

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, Ms. Carlson said.

"Many of our students have never been on a farm," said Chris Schneider, coordinator of the internship program and associate professor of cattle-production medicine at the University of Idaho and instructor at WSU. "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, Ms. Trice is obviously in her element. Could she ever work as a city vet?

"I don't think so," says Ms. 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.



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