Animal Practice: Two Veterinarians Talk Taking Care of Livestock - Modern Farmer

Animal Practice: Two Veterinarians Talk Taking Care of Livestock

As of 2011, fewer than 5,000 farm vets were working in the United States. We managed to track down two of them to talk about their work.

Dr. Justin Martin, 27
Camden Animal Hospital in South Carolina

Modern Farmer: Where do you practice?

Dr. Justin Martin: I’m practicing out of Camden, South Carolina, but there are eight or nine counties that I service [in the Pee Dee region, the northeastern part of South Carolina]. Before coming here I practiced in Eastern North Carolina doing hog work and beef cattle work but came down here to South Carolina with the program. I’ve read stories about how farm vets are becoming more and more of a rarity.

MF: Why do you think that is? Is there a shortage of farm vets in your area?

JM: I don’t know – a lot of people don’t like getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning to go pull a calf being born in the middle of the winter. Small animal practice is definitely more of an eight-to-five job. You do see emergencies now and then but I’d say it’s maybe an easier lifestyle. With large animal vets, it’s more of a daylight-to-dark type thing ”“ and even after dark or before daylight sometimes. The farmer needs help all the time ”“ if a cow is having a calf and midnight and she needs help you have to go. And I think a lot of it has to do with the younger generations not growing up on farms or not coming from agricultural type communities. The decreased number of farms or family farms nationwide might have a little bit to do with it as well.

MF: What are the animals that you treat most often?

JM: Here in the middle part of South Carolina, the midlands, I treat a lot of cow-calf operations, a lot of beef cattle. Smaller ruminants have been a big thing here for the last few years. Goats are getting really popular with small farmers, with people that have ten to twenty acres that want to put something on their land. And the goat market has gone up quite a bit too. I would say probably 60 percent cattle and 40 percent smaller ruminant and swine.

MF: What kind of patients and injuries do you usually treat?

JM: It’s really a preventative type of medicine. I go to a lot of the cattlemen’s meetings and speak – anything you can do to prevent going out at midnight to pull a calf; you know, really we’re educating these farmers so that they wont put a huge bull on a moderate framed cow, for example. She’s gonna have problems having the baby. And also herd-health basics – we do a lot of vaccine protocols, we treat a lot of pneumonia in the calves. This year it’s been real wet so we’ve treated a lot of foot rot.

MF: Would you mind telling me about some of your most exceptional or rewarding cases?

JM: Last Christmas I got called out to see a cow that had just had a calf and prolapsed her uterus ”“ it was cold and dark and it was like… trying to push a golf ball through a garden horse I guess. It was the size of a… I dunno, it was huge and we had to put it back through a tiny hole and sew her up. That was really something.

MF: Was that a success?

JM: Yeah we got it back it in but man, it was crazy.

Dr. Stephen Adams, 62
Professor at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine


Modern Farmer: What made you want to become a farm vet?

Dr. Stephen Adams: I grew up on a farm in upstate New York and was exposed to livestock and animals at a very early age. I broke and trained horses when I was in high school, and loved working with animals. I also wanted to be my own boss, that was the stimulus and I enjoyed medicine. Or, I thought that I would enjoy medicine.

MF: What kind of farm was it?

SA: It was a mixed farm – beef cattle, chickens, horses. My dad was the local horse dealer. We had fruit, because it’s along the lakes – grapes, apples, that type of fruit. It was an eclectic mix. You see calves born, cows die. I was exposed to that sort of thing.

MF: What surprised you about vet school?

SA: Ha! [Pauses] I learn new things every day so… well, the thing that was interesting about my training, as far as surprises, was the diversity of things that vets can do. Not just tend to animals, but you are trained in food inspection, epidemiology, looking at communicable infection, particularly the diseases transmitted to humans from animals. Did it surprise me to see a two-headed calf? Other congenital deformities? Maybe a little bit.

MF: When did you start specializing?

SA: Students can kinda start specializing during the last couple of years of veterinary training. First, you have to learn the normal, then you learn what is the abnormal and then you have to learn the diseases and how to treat them. There are number of training programs. I went through one in surgery and spent three years [after vet school] doing that specialty.

MF: What drew you to surgery?

SA: I kind of like doing things with my hands, playing a guitar or building a treehouse, or just working on the farm machinery, when I was a kid, was enjoyable. It’s a neat discipline. You need physical technical skills.

MF: Did you do any hand exercises?

SA: [Extended laughter.] No. No, I mean, at one time, I spent time practicing tying knots, sewing.

MF: So when did you start teaching at Purdue?

SA: You mean why am I still here? So, I took this exam, to prove that I had done this training, at that point [in 1978], Purdue said, ‘we have an opening.’ And here’s where life gets serendipitous – by this time I had met and married a lady from Indiana.

MF: I bet you’ve seen a lot of changes in the field.

SA: There has been a tremendous amount of change in the field. In my particular discipline, some of the big changes are the ability to anesthetize a sick horse and not kill them. It just to be a huge risk – you remember people saying that if a horse had a fractured leg, you’d have to shoot them? Now it’s a lot safer. I think another big thing is that technology has changed dramatically. Now we are doing what is a buzzword in human medicine ”“ “minorly invasive surgery.” We don’t have to make big incisions – we do quite a bit in the upper respiratory using lasers.

MF: What about changes in farming?

SA: In the food industry, we have large corporate farms. If you Google “Fair Oaks Farm,” you’ll see it’s one of the largest dairy farms in the Midwest – they have 18,000 cows. They give tours of barns a half a mile long and they milk cows 23 hours a day. That’s kind of the trend.

MF: Have big farms changed the animals themselves? Are you seeing different diseases?

SA: That, I’m not so sure. We still see calves with umbilical hernias, cows with a Left Displaced Abomasum, like a twisted gut. On the hand, in the swine industry, vets are becoming more and more interested in herd health, working with nutrition, trying to find what vaccination schedules are the best. Less treating individual animals. It parallels the trend in human medicine to do more preventative health.

MF: Do you make any value judgments about these large corporate farms, coming from a smaller farm as a child?

SA: You know, with small family farms, some are very well managed and some are not. I’ll be honest with you, the big farms that I’ve seen, their animal care is remarkably good. They are making big money because they are taking good care of their cattle. You don’t make money by being a poor manager of your animals. I grew up with family farms, and some were appalling. There’s nothing inherently disastrous or terrible about a large farm.

MF: Has becoming a vet changed the way you eat?

SA: I still enjoy a good steak. But do I have a problem with vegetarians? Not at all.

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