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On-the-farm training enhances veterinary student education

Holly Drankhan for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 January 2016

As technology in the dairy industry expands, so do the abilities of producers to prevent disease and monitor herd health. In light of these advances, what role will the next generation of veterinarians serve on commercial dairies?

That is the question senior veterinary students from across the country are exploring at the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Excellence in Dairy Veterinary Medicine.

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Through lectures, wet labs and online learning modules, the eight-week Dairy Production Medicine curriculum allows students to combine clinical topics like vaccination protocols, mastitis control, nutrition, epidemiology and reproduction with business-related courses in human resource management and economic decision-making.

“The goal has always been to better prepare students interested in a career in dairy veterinary medicine for the kind of professional needs they will face in their careers over the next three decades,” said Dr. John Fetrow, veterinarian and professor at the UMN College of Veterinary Medicine. “From our vantage, this meant adding in-depth training in dairy production medicine to their usual education in clinical medicine in the veterinary curriculum.”

In 2011, the UMN College of Veterinary Medicine – in collaboration with veterinary schools at the University of Illinois, University of Georgia and Kansas State University – received a grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop the curriculum and web materials. To date, students from 10 veterinary colleges have enrolled in the program, Fetrow said.

The 18 students who participate in each session are taught and housed at New Sweden Dairy in Nicollet, Minnesota, one of three commercial dairies owned and operated by Davis Family Dairies. Built in 2007, the farm’s Dairy Education Center includes classrooms, research labs and dormitory spaces that serve veterinary students as well as industry professionals who attend continuing-education workshops. The costs of the academic buildings were reimbursed by UMN and donations from industry representatives.

Prior to beginning milk production in 2000, the Davis family was involved in milk and cheese processing for 60 years. Now, Davis Family Dairies manages more than 20,000 Jersey cows and calves, with 10,000 more born annually.

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Studying in a commercial operation of this size affords veterinary students an authentic glimpse into the realities of the commercial dairy world, including human resources and regulations, said general manager Mitch Davis.

“I think having [students] exposed to the challenges these dairies are enduring helps them to be more sensitive when they go out and graduate to what their customers are really dealing with,” Davis said. “It is not just about palpating cows.”

Learning to conduct herd evaluations and write up recommendation summaries were among the most valuable skills Ashley Swenson, a fourth-year veterinary student at UMN, gained during her rotation. She also learned some Spanish vocabulary through the program’s online learning modules to help her communicate on bilingual farms.

“Learning from industry leaders and working with farm owners and managers has taught me various methods of communication, including what does and does not work when trying to implement improvements,” said Swenson, who will be working as an embryo transfer practitioner after graduation.

The Dairy Education Center also provides an exploration into Midwestern dairies for out-of-state students like Alex Beck, a fourth-year veterinary student from Washington State University. Beck’s eight-week stay at the center – which houses more than 4,500 adult cows on-site – reinforced some of the difficulties shared by all members of the industry.

“The proximity of the classroom to the dairy forced the consideration that there is no ‘average’ cow, and that each herd, whether 50 or 10,000 cows, is a collection of individuals,” Beck said. “This consideration is a challenge I believe dairy farmers and veterinarians face in the future: How to manage large groups of animals without forgetting the individuals.”

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Beck and Swenson both agree that the next generation of dairy veterinarians will need to offer value-added services to best serve their clients.

“I think that veterinarians have dug themselves into an unfortunate hole in dairy medicine where we’ve taught producers that our expertise doesn’t span beyond reproduction, vaccination and displaced abomasum surgery,” Beck said.

“The skills learned through programs like DPM help to truly cement our knowledge base to where we can act as animal health professionals,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges in performing everything that new role has to offer is convincing producers that we can and should do more than what we have done traditionally.”

As the program grows, the university hopes to attract more students from other veterinary colleges, further refine the curriculum and offer web-based educational materials to more students, Fetrow said.

With classrooms that overlook a bustling rotary milking parlor, the Dairy Education Center continues to immerse eager learners in the daily routines of a commercial dairy.

“I think industry letting university inside the commercial side of their business to understand what the needs are of the industry is something that is necessary and we need to do more of. Otherwise, the universities are educating these students in a vacuum; they might be turning out students [who] have talents that aren’t the most useful talents the industry needs,” Davis said. “I think just working together and exchanging dialogue – having influence on their program and them having influence on our business – is good for both parties.”

For more information about the program and how to apply, please visit the National Center for Excellence’s website.  PD

Holly Drankhan is a student at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

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