Sept./Oct. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee and Paolo Vescia
Rural veterinarians provide vital services
Rural veterinarians such as Dr. Kayla Winn play a key role in the health and well-being of food animals, and in protecting food safety.
It's 6 a.m. in the Central Valley. Donning heavy coveralls, rubber boots and a plastic sleeve over one arm, Dr. Kayla Winn is ready for her first patient of the day—a thousand-pound Jersey cow at Charles Ahlem Ranch in Hilmar.
By 10 a.m., she will have examined more than 200 dairy cows, checking their reproductive tracts for pregnancy in a procedure veterinarians call palpation.
The physical work, usually done outdoors and sometimes under California's hot summer conditions, is all part of what Winn calls her "dream job"—caring for the health and well-being of dairy cows and other food animals.
During a routine herd check, Winn examines cows for pregnancy, above, and prepares a vaccine, below.
She's among a decreasing number of veterinary professionals who are willing to get down and dirty, often working long and unpredictable hours, to treat livestock. Many more of her peers are opting for practices that see dogs and cats, much to the alarm of farmers and agricultural experts, who fear the trend could affect food safety and undermine the nation's ability to handle outbreaks of catastrophic animal diseases.
"I get a lot of personal satisfaction knowing that I'm involved in protecting the food supply, protecting public health and making sure the animals are treated well," said Winn, one of several staff veterinarians at Atwater Merced Veterinary Clinic, a mixed-animal practice that treats livestock and companion animals.
An inability to find good veterinary service isn't just a problem for farmers with sick cattle; it's a precursor to a more serious issue, said Annette Whiteford, state veterinarian for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
"Everything we eat—whether it's an apple, hamburger or chicken salad—starts at the farm," she said. "It's important for the rancher to have good health care at the farm, because they need healthy, thriving animals to meet the demands of the consuming public, and food-animal veterinarians play a key role in that."
As state veterinarian, Whiteford said she relies on private veterinarians to be the eyes and ears on the farm to spot emerging diseases that could affect the food supply. Anytime they see something unusual, they alert the state's field offices, and that occurs on a daily to weekly basis, she said.
Dr. Daniel Mora's mobile practice serves a wide variety of livestock, including 4-H project animals such as goats.
Whiteford noted that it was a private veterinarian in the Los Angeles area who first tipped animal health authorities to a highly contagious and fatal bird virus known as exotic Newcastle disease. The veterinarian had noticed more deaths of backyard chickens and sent samples to the state lab. The 2002-03 outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease led to the eventual loss of some 3 million birds in backyards and on poultry farms before the disease was eradicated.
With growing interest in urban farming, Dr. Daniel Mora, who operates Tri County Mobile Veterinary Service in Yolo County, says he's seen a proliferation of backyard chickens but not necessarily veterinarians to care for them. He points out that he's probably the only vet in the entire region "who willingly sees poultry," other than the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
Though a diverse agricultural powerhouse, Yolo County is better known for its rice fields, orchards and vegetable farms than its large livestock ranches.
That said, the region is home to a scattering of smaller herds, backyard flocks and plenty of 4-H and FFA project animals that need veterinary care, and for them, Mora is not only a lifesaver but a rarity in that making house calls is all he does.
In that way, he is a throwback to the sort of country veterinarians he knew when he was growing up on his family's ranch in Southern California.
An expert in camelid medicine, Mora pays weekly visits to alpaca rancher Dale Davis.
"My experience with veterinarians was that they came in a truck," Mora said. "And my conceptualization of (being a vet) was that I was going to have to see lots of different animals, because my family had pigs and chickens and goats and sheep and cattle."
Because Mora serves an area that doesn't have a large concentration of livestock herds, word gets around about his mixed-animal mobile vet unit and his extensive experience with alpacas and llamas. Being one of the only vets in the region who knows anything about camelid medicine, Mora often travels long distances to serve clients who otherwise would have very limited veterinary care options.
"Besides myself, I'd be hard-pressed to think of anybody who will do livestock other than horses," he said.
Both Winn, above, and Mora, below, are often on the road and travel with their medical supplies.
Dale Davis, a Yolo County alpaca rancher who has been Mora's client for more than 10 years, said when she started her business in the Napa Valley years ago, she used a veterinarian in Sonoma County who had some camelid experience but operated out of a clinic and did not make farm calls except in rare emergencies. That meant she had to transport her alpacas to the vet, a practice that would be nearly impossible for her today, considering the 140 animals she has now compared to the 15 she had back then.
Davis said she would not have been able to expand her herd to the size it is today if she did not have access to a mobile vet like Mora, who has a standing, weekly appointment at her ranch in Esparto to do routine herd checks and maintenance.
"My other choice other than Danny would be trailering animals to UC Davis' veterinary hospital, and that's expensive," she said.
Whiteford said there continues to be strong demand for rural veterinarians nationwide, but the need is especially acute in communities that are remote, and where there are dispersed farms and ranches, because veterinarians who serve those areas tend to cover more ground, and that means they can't see as many cases in a day.
Mora said a declining economic base in many rural areas may be why there's been a significant shift of veterinarians toward urban centers, where there are more family pets, allowing veterinarians to establish a practice with more lucrative opportunities.
"In rural areas, the clients are farther apart, so you've got to take time to go someplace," he said. "At clinics, the patients are coming to you. You can make more money in an urban area most of the time."
Mora swears by his knee pads.
Rural veterinarians are also expected to take on emergencies—in all kinds of weather, any time of day. Mora and Winn can both attest to getting middle-of-the-night calls to assist with a difficult calving or tend to a seriously ill animal.
To attract more graduates to rural areas that need them, federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as agricultural organizations and private companies, offer incentives such as scholarships and debt relief programs to help graduates pay off some of their school loans if they enter the food-animal medicine field.
Another way to encourage more young people to consider rural veterinary practice is by planting the seed early, and UC Davis is trying to do this through its Early Veterinary Student Bovine Experience Program, which pairs students with practicing veterinarians for mentorship and on-the-job training.
The program had a lasting effect on Winn, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and had no experience with farming. She loved riding horses and originally set out to pursue a career in equine medicine. But the summer before entering vet school, she enrolled in the program, which put her to work on a dairy milking, feeding, birthing and managing the herd. She was hooked.
"That exposure started me on the path to become a food-animal veterinarian," said Winn, who now mentors students who are going through that same program.
Winn takes a break during her busy schedule.
Frank Dinis, herd manager for Charles Ahlem Ranch, said he believes if more students are exposed to the idea of working in food-animal medicine, then they would at least consider the option. The challenge is trying to appeal to young people who may have come from an urban background and want to be closer to amenities found in larger towns and cities.
"As we force agriculture to certain parts of the country that are less populated, it's going to make it harder to attract people to go live and work in those areas," he said.
The 4,500-cow dairy he manages employs two veterinarians for weekly herd checks, as well as monthly consultations on herd health issues and cow management. He said it would not be possible to maintain a successful dairy without the ability to provide the animals with good, regular health care.
"I think it's commendable for young people to go into veterinary medicine. They're part of feeding the world," Dinis said. "To me, it's something to be proud of when you're part of something so basic that most people take for granted."
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.