While their peers took a summer break or enjoyed internships with regular hours, some veterinary students put in 12-hour days slogging through feedlots in the Nebraska heat.

The reason is as simple as these students are rare. Each wants to practice food-animal medicine. And, each wanted the practical experience of dealing with animal health in a feedlot setting, arguably the hottest possible baptism by fire.

“In an academic environment, obviously we can't replicate a feedyard,” says Terry Engelken, Iowa State University (ISU) College of Veterinary Medicine. “Plus, vet schools are faced with a declining number of cases, so it becomes critical we get these students outside the university walls to see how things work, and why they don't work sometimes.”

All this is the impetus behind the Beef PIKE program offered by ISU and the University of Nebraska. PIKE stands for Production Immersive Knowledge Experience. It's a 10-week summer program in which veterinary students do just that: immerse themselves in the daily ebb and flow of working feedlots, while also enhancing specific veterinary medicine knowledge and skills. The first six students completed the program a year ago; six more went through it this summer.

“As a veterinarian, unless you've spent time immersed in a feedlot, you don't understand cross-contamination issues,” says Dee Griffin, feedlot production management veterinarian at the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center near Clay Center, NE. “For instance, you don't think of putting the scouring calves last in processing so they don't contaminate the rest of the calves you're processing; those kinds of things. If I hadn't spent eight weeks cleaning water tanks and dipping vats and all of the rest, I wouldn't have as much understanding of why all the things feedyards do are so important to the health of the cattle.”

That's one reason first-year hosts Gottsch Cattle Company, headquartered at Elkhorn and Hastings, NE, and Mid-America Feed Yard at Ohiowa, NE, were willing to let students work alongside their employees for the summer. They also believe there's a need for current and future veterinarians to know and help cow-calf producers understand the importance of things like Beef Quality Assurance programs. Circle 5 Beef at Henderson, NE, also served as a student host.

Keep in mind, cattle feeders often use consulting veterinarians to prescribe handling and treatment protocols, and to sort out health wrecks. Employees typically handle all day-to-day health needs.

Giving is receiving

Mike Danehey, general manager at Gottsch Cattle Company, which hosted PIKE students at its yards in Juniata and Red Cloud, adds, “One thing that also intrigued me was that the students would be able to do all the necropsies. We'd like to post everything, but we don't have the time.”

At least for the summer, PIKE students could perform necropsies in these yards. Students rode pens, pulled and treated, rode with feed crews, learned about bunk reading, cleaned water troughs and more.

ISU student Tracy Hadenfeldt explains, “I'm from a cow-calf operation. I want to do large-animal medicine, but I had no idea what a feedlot was like. Preg-checking heifers that weigh 400-500 lbs. is a lot different than preg-checking first-calf replacement heifers.”

“Just the sheer volume of cattle was an education,” adds Brad Metzner, a University of Missouri (UM) student who's been in and around the cattle business his whole life.

“It's valuable to see what sick cattle look like in that setting, looking at symptoms, temperature and lungs and then working with the cowboys back and forth,” says Jon Tangen, an ISU student.

“You'll see a wider variety of challenges in the feedlot than you will at the cow-calf level,” says Sergio Maldonado, head cowboy at Juniata. “I had the students riding in the feed truck and studying the behavior of fed cattle vs. calves, learning how to handle cattle quietly, and knowing the difference between walking into a pen and riding into one.”

Jeffery Anderson, a UM student, says learning cattle-handling techniques was a highlight. Along with the practical education offered by the feedyard crews, he says PIKE students were also privy to a series of workshops and lectures from industry experts in topics such as animal handling.

Along with the cattle knowledge, Emily Snyder, an ISU student, explains, “I came to have an appreciation for the day-to-day communication and how, if things don't work right in one area, it affects everyone else.” In fact, each student says they gained a new appreciation for the value of communication.

“Seeing how a feedyard works helps you see how you can fit in as the veterinarian,” says ISU student Jordan Bader. No matter the topic, Bader says, “We could ask the head cowboy, the manager, the feed crew or anyone else why they did particular things and they'd tell us. We owe a lot of thanks to Fort Dodge.”

“We started with what we thought would be an excellent learning experience for the students, but the generosity of Fort Dodge Animal Health funding made this program happen,” Engelken says.

“We need more veterinary students with more interest in food-animal production, including its role in national security and national food safety,” explains Frank Prouty, Fort Dodge senior director of feedlot services. “This gave us a chance to assist with that in a small way.” The company was so pleased they sponsored the program again this year along with additional support from Bayer Animal Health and Elanco Animal Health.

“Not only are we excited about what the students got out of it, but the participating veterinarians and cooperating feedlots took away positives from it, as well,” Prouty adds.

For instance, Scott Bonifas, manager of the Gottsch yard at Red Cloud, gained new regional perspectives as he posted cattle with Metzner.

He adds, “We learned some from them, and hopefully they learned some from us.”