It’s World Veterinary Day today, Apr. 29, 2017
Semi-retired vets look back, ahead at changing landscape, excerpt f/ Farmshine June 2015
KITTANNING, Pa. — The future of animal care “comes down to how we look at animals in our culture. We have to accept that animals are useful to man and accept our role in protecting and fostering these animals in their service to man. Veterinary work takes compassion, determination and dedication. While the animals can’t speak to tell you what is wrong, they also can’t lie, so that frees you to see what they are ‘telling’ you,” observes Dr. Robert Lash of Kittaning, Pa.
Where would farming, food production, and our purpose-driven companionship with both our working animals and pets be without good veterinarians?
In 2015, I interviewed two semi-retiring veterinarians with 100 years of combined experience providing veterinary care for animals — large animals and small, working animals and pets, food animal and companions.
Dr. Lash — a man of 80 years — knew early in life that veterinary work was his calling.
“I was just three, and my grandmother had a lame chicken. I examined the bird and saw the green age-band was embedded,” he recalls. “I cut that band out for her, and the foot healed up just fine.”
So it began for Lash, and by 1963, he was starting his practice in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, first with large animals and gradually shifting into small animals as other large animal vets joined the practice.
For Lash’s first partner, Dr. ‘Gabby’ Durkac, the ‘light bulb’ went off at age 12. Raised on a farm with a few cows, one went down after calving. “The vet was called. He IV’d the cow and got her up and I was amazed,” Durkac recalls. “I thought: That’s what I want to do.”
During a spring 2015 visit, the two vets talked of “crazy hours” in those early days of the practice, of almost never having a night without emergencies. Their wives told of husbands nearly nodding off at the most inappropriate times.
Country vets earn their stripes and stars with not only their know-how but also their perseverance. Virtual energizer bunnies, they are.
The two men chuckled good-naturedly at the recollection of 5 a.m. milk fever calls as the start to many a morning, herd checks until lunch, clinic work in the afternoon and very often having to go back out for a midnight or 1 a.m. emergency call and thenagain at 5 or 6 a.m. to start over.
With calls coming in all the time, their practice grew fast. Both men observe how it has evolved with changes in the veterinary field and as farms are fewer and larger with more distance between. Even though the remaining farms are still family farms, they are different today.
“We have half as many farms and roughly the same number of cows in a 50-mile radius compared with the 70s and 80s. Today, producers take care of some of the things we used to get called for, like milk fever,” Durkac relates, adding that it has been rewarding to have worked with as many as three generations of families managing customer herds.
“We have become more consultants and less hands-on. That is the trend, giving advice on how to manage herd health,” Lash notes, explaining that the herd health programs they started years back have provided a more organized and proactive approach, and the newer generation of dairy managers are adept with knowledge not available in the old days.
“We even have producers who can handle a uterine torsion. They’ve learned how to roll the cow to deliver the calf,” Durkac adds. “Often today, we are called for a diagnosis and the farmers do the treatments.”
“But the emergencies do come,” Carolyn Lash observes. On the pet side, there are emergency clinics for after-hours care, but for the large animal side, her husband still takes those calls and gives advice when a large animal vet is not available at the clinic.
Biosecurity is among the challenges Lash sees on the horizon.
“This is a main concern, that of keeping transmissible diseases out of the herd,” he says, adding that today, “in general, herds are getting larger and more expertly managed.”
“They have to, to survive today,” Durkac adds. He sees the animal care side as a challenge due to organizations like PETA always looking for negative situations. “They go overboard with some of this. They must realize these are 1500 and 2000-lb animals. You don’t just pick them up and carry them.”
Lash agrees, but added that the attention to animal care has been a positive outcome. He sees how today’s advances in knowledge and technology are making things better for the animals and those who manage them.
It is a circle of continuous improvement.
As dairies expand and genetics improve — with genomic testing more affordable and able to identify animals that will be healthier and more productive — the challenge will be using the advances in herd management to keep up with the continually improving genetic potential of the cow.
Durkac observes how the decisions in animal care must often balance the science, the emotion and the economic realities of farming — to make decisions that are both good for the animal but also consider the economics farm families face in the cattle industry.
“As veterinarians, we look at the husbandry and working to keep animals healthy at all points of production,” he says.
Producers and their team members have to be willing to trust and share information. Today’s vets and nutritionists consult together about what they see as they observe the cows, according to Durkac.
Durkac notes that with bulls now rated on health traits, even immunity, some of his clients are using genomics more routinely. “It makes sense to use a tool that can tell you the strength and health and productivity of the animals when they are young. Some dairy farms are taking the top 5 to 10% of the herd and breeding them to good bulls and breeding the bottom percent to beef bulls for the beef market.”
While both docs had funny stories — like the time some cows got out of a pasture and into a local’s homegrown ‘wacky weed’ — the memories shared were a mix of the odd, the sad, the happy and the profound.
Most rewarding for Lash after all of these years is the appreciation of clients — both 2-legged and 4-legged. They told about “Andy,” a poodle that had a paralyzed rear leg back in the 1970s.
“We attempted decompression disc surgery, and it was successful, but he still had paralysis so we built a cart for the dog to pull itself around,” Durkac recalled. “The owner wasn’t able to handle that, so we kept the dog and six months later he finally started to walk. It was right around Christmas time, so he was a gift of sorts back to his original owners.”
To aspiring vets, Lash advises the importance of having a good mentor and joining a practice that is accepting associates, if possible. In rural communities of the West, Durkac still reads of young vets starting out — much like he and Dr. Lash — growing their own practices.
“Personality is also big,” adds Durkac. “As a vet, you don’t just work with the animals, you have to be able to work with people every day.”
For anyone considering a future as a veterinarian, both docs advise getting some farm experience before applying to vet school. “Then follow your instincts once you get that farm experience and see all phases of veterinary medicine,” Lash suggests.
To be partners for 45 years, you have to be able to get along and to challenge each other, the two men agree. For Lash and Durkac, they were able to work separately in the practice and also consult together on tough cases.
To be a vet, you have to love animals.
But to be a vet, that love of animals has to know some boundaries.
Both men related some of their toughest calls and how being born into and raised in farm animal culture helped give them perspective.
“The toughest thing to face is when an animal is in trouble, and needs extreme therapy or surgery, and the owner is in the financial situation not to be able to afford to do it, so you find alternative ways to work with that animal,” Durkac relates.
Ranking high on the reward list is delivering a live calf, or any animal. For Lash, the vivid memory was getting a call on a cow with milk fever down in the pasture trying to deliver her calf.
“I treated the milk fever first and then set to deliver the calf, but a giant thunderstorm was underway and that cow was crosswise in a hollow that filled up with water behind her and started cascading over us like she was a dam,” he said shaking his head. “We delivered the calf and got her up. I guess I was just so focused on what I was doing, I didn’t realize how much water was building up behind us. We were lucky to survive that… just another day in the field.”
The ones that don’t end well — even after working up a sweat in zero-degree weather — they also stick with a vet. Durkac recalled a heifer in labor at a farm on a zero-degree night. The farmer’s son had worked with the cow for six hours before calling the vet.
“I got there and the heifer couldn’t get up. The calf was too big for the heifer, so my objective was to save the heifer,” he recalled. “I started working on my knees. There were no lights in the barn, and I remember working so hard I was sweating and looked up as the farmer held the flashlight to see ice crystals above me. I came home to find a foal behind the pony Dr. Lash had given me. We named her Zero and she was around for a while.”
For the dairies Durkac has served over the past 45 years, the calm demeanor and knowing ways will be missed. “You can’t beat him,” said Lara Wilson Shields of fifth generation Le-Ara Holsteins, where her parents Dick and Shirley are the third generation. “Gabby has been our herd vet since I was six. He has saved cows here so many times, including the cow on our sign who lived to be over 18 years old.”
Not only was ‘Sprite’ the 27th among a handful of cows to go 6E in the Holstein breed and with over 200,000 pounds of lifetime milk, she was Lara’s special cow. “I bought her when she was three days old. Doc took good care of her, and when she went on her own, we got a sympathy card from the office,” she says.
As Lara puts it, good country vets are reliable. “Gabby has gotten me out of a jam many times. He has been a savior.”
Both Durkac and Lash keep a hand in veterinary medicine and have local farms of their own — with livestock, of course. Lash reduced his time at the clinic to half days and looks forward to having more time on his tractor at the farm. While none of his four children went into veterinary practice, Ericka has delivered lambs at the farm a time or two when her parents were away.
Durkac does a handful of herd checks once a week and some consulting. While he has developed close relationships with clients, who are “like second family,” he is looking forward to traveling with wife Rosemary to Washington, D.C., Colorado and Illinois, where he has children and a grandson.
Dr. Robert Lash (left) and wife Carolyn and Dr. Gabriel “Gabby” Durkac, flanked by wife Rosemary (left) and dairywoman Lara Wilson Shields at the Wilson family’s 5th generation Le-Ara Holsteins, Worthington, Pa. Lara credits the docs for the care their Holstein “Sprite” received for over 18 years. Pictured on the farm sign, Sprite was the 27th cow to go 6E in the Holstein breed. “Gabby has been the vet taking care of our cows since I was six years old. He is the best,” she says. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Dr. Robert Lash (left) is flanked by daughter Ericka and wife Carolyn and Dr. Gabriel “Gabby” Durkac by wife Rosemary (left) and dairywoman Lara Wilson at the Wilson family’s 5th generation Le-Ara Holsteins, Worthington, Pa. Lara credits the docs for the care their Holstein “Sprite” received for over 18 years. Pictured on the farm sign, Sprite was the 27th cow to go 6E in the Holstein breed. “Gabby has been the vet taking care of our cows since I was six years old. He is the best,” she says. Photo by Sherry Bunting