Animal Health Matters: A veterinarian takes a break

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum
Russ Daly, State Public Health Veterinarian

If you didn’t, that’s OK – but some of you might have noticed I’ve been absent from writing these columns since the first of the year (I’m forever grateful to the veterinarian “guest columnists” who shared their insights with you during my absence). I spent the spring semester on a sabbatical, helping teach veterinary students at Lincoln Memorial University, a small school in the shadow of the Cumberland Gap in East Tennessee.

It was a place I’d never been before, and a school I knew next to nothing about; that was kind of the point, to be honest. Upon my arrival, I learned the school had an abrupt need for faculty members with food animal veterinary experience to help teach their students clinical skills with cattle and sheep – things like physical examinations, palpations, pulling calves, and taking blood samples. The subject matter I’m used to teaching our SDSU students is vastly different: infectious diseases and public health. Teaching young minds these clinical subjects was going to stretch my capabilities quite a bit.

As it turned out, that stretch was the best part of the whole experience. It wasn’t my advanced degree or board certifications that the students valued of me. Rather, it was my experience with the very essence of food animal practice – those everyday tasks and skills I performed for all those years in small-town mixed animal practice in South Dakota. I found students who craved perspective and context for how they would actually use those skills in their future practice careers, and appreciated my insight and anecdotes. I also found they craved encouragement about their potential future in food animal medicine. Negative messages abound, unfortunately even among some veterinary educators, about the future of large animal veterinary practice. Giving one of these future vets even the smallest affirmation was like throwing a life preserver to a drowning student.

Another unexpected surprise for this prairie flatlander was the gorgeous terrain and landscapes appearing around every corner in the southern Appalachians. I quickly learned that, while awesome to look at, the mountains dictated some very different circumstances for resident cattle herds and veterinarians. Cattle herds are common, but they’re small in numbers and graze whatever modest pastures could be carved into the foothills or valleys. Those picturesque mountain ranges add miles and miles to what should be a short drive as the crow flies. As a result, food animal vets who run farm calls are few and very far between. In our part of the world, availability of a local vet for emergencies or routine calls can sometimes be problems, but animal owners have it so much better here than out there when it comes to finding a vet.

The break was a great pick-me-up and came at the right time in my career (as well as just the right time to miss the majority of this past winter!). I had meaningful interactions with students who found my contributions valuable, worked in some of the best vet school animal facilities anywhere, and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with some excellent educators dedicated solely to the needs of their students.

You’ve heard the term, “take a mental health day”; I was blessed to take a “mental health semester.” The time away gave me a terrific perspective of animal agriculture and veterinary medicine in a different – but still rural – part of the country and allowed me the chance to immerse myself in the world of veterinary education. Thankfully, SDSU allows their professors to do this every so often. Few of us, however, are in good positions to do so, what with family and other obligations.

If I had a wish for my colleagues, whether at SDSU or in veterinary practice, it would be that they could have a similar opportunity. I fully realize that the fact that I work at a university allows me that chance – something I wouldn’t be able to have done while in a busy practice.

We all do need to push the pause button every so often, even if it’s just a day or two instead of a whole four months. I hope each of you can find that time this spring and summer – and be understanding when your veterinarian chooses to do the same!

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.