Animal doctors adapt to change

Carroll focus switches from farm animals to pets

June 14, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The cows are losing ground to dogs and cats as suburbia takes over farmland in Carroll County, but even rarer is the veterinarian who will see creatures great and small.

"The old [James] Herriot books make it sound very romantic to do all that, but it's difficult to be an expert in all species," said Nicholas Herrick, a Westminster veterinarian.

Herrick and partner John Kable will phase out their large-animal practice by next month to handle the cats and dogs that are increasing in Carroll County at an estimated rate of 1,680 every year.

The cattle population has decreased by by an average of 643 a year between 1992 and 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture census.

"There's going to be less and less cows every year -- it's a foregone conclusion," said veterinarian William L. Graves. Graves and partner Locher Bray have a primarily large-animal practice in Taylorsville, a South Carroll crossroads where development from Mount Airy to the south and Westminster to the north creeps closer.

Ten years ago, Graves and Bray could see that changing demographics called for some diversification.

"That's one reason we started a small-animal clinic," Graves said. Houses were going up everywhere, and there wasn't a veterinarian in either direction for eight miles.

"But I'm thinking our area will always have a certain number of dairy farms," he said.

In the early 1980s, newly out of veterinary school, Bray started the practice in his basement, dealing exclusively with cattle.

Now, a typical day can start with a litter of 2-day-old shelties at the clinic and end with emergency stomach surgery on a 1,400-pound Holstein on the floor of a barn.

Graves and Bray are among the few young veterinarians willing to meet the demands of what used to be an exclusively rural county. They manage about 25,000 head of the 30,584 cattle the 1997 USDA census lists for Carroll. The 1992 census counted 33,700 cattle.

"In the East, it's very hard to find a vet who wants to do a mixed practice," said Herrick. His patients have always been mostly pets.

1 percent of income

Suburban development handed Herrick more household pets -- and more time stuck in traffic when he went out on farm calls. Horses and cattle make up about 5 percent of his practice but take up 10 percent of his and Kable's time and bring in about 1 percent of the practice's income, Herrick estimated.

"You could spend half an hour sitting at traffic lights in Westminster," Herrick said.

So much for the romance of Herriot's Yorkshire countryside veterinarian, immortalized in books such as "All Creatures Great and Small."

Romance takes a back seat on today's farm. Little Tex is tall, sleek and large, but looks will take her only so far.

"This cow, if I can get her pregnant, would be in the five figures," said owner Brad Garst, who breeds and sells show cows such as Little Tex on his New Windsor farm. "If I can't, she's $500 to $600 of meat. She's Roy Rogers."

Cattle exclusively

That's not the kind of thing a pet owner would say, but Graves is comfortable with patients that feed the family, as well as those that are part of the family. He and Bray would just as soon devote their practice to cattle exclusively, but the small-animal clinic brings in money. Pets now make up 30 percent of their practice. Associates do most of the small-animal work.

A bovine veterinarian is essentially a fertility specialist. Even small family farms use the latest biotechnology to stimulate multiple embryos in a "super cow" for implantation in ordinary cows that will carry the calves to term.

Crystal Stambaugh, herd manager for her parents' farm outside Westminster, hires Graves and Bray to flush out embryos from Sweetie, a cow that produces 36,000 pounds of milk a year, compared to 23,000 pounds produced by most of the other cows in the herd.

Stambaugh administers a series of hormone shots to Sweetie and artificially inseminates her in the weeks before the vets arrive. The idea is to get Sweetie to produce as many embryos as possible.

The visit turns out to be fruitless -- none of the embryos is viable.

But at Marlin Hoff's farm near New Windsor, the veterinarians are able to get six good embryos from a Holstein.

"There's a good one, right there," Graves says, his eyes glued to the microscope set up on a table in a room off the barn. The embryos are in a clear solution in a petri dish. Graves pulls up the embryo through a syringe and inserts it into a separate dish to prepare for implanting.

Embryos that are not to be used will be placed into a straw-like container and eventually plunged into a tank of liquid nitrogen that will keep them frozen.

The technology has been used for about five years, Graves said. It has helped dairy farmers like Hoff build large, strong herds and small farmers start dairy operations.

The back roads that Graves and Bray drive are full of dairy farms that will be milking for a long time.

Much of the farmland of the Wakefield Valley area between their clinic and Westminster is in the state's Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

"We have some of the top dairy cattle in the country," Bray said. "A lot of purebred cattle. There will be dairy farming in Carroll County for at least another 20 or 30 years."

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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