Veterinary Student Explores Career Options with VERO Tour

Story by Dorian Martin

A group of people post in front of a large fireplace, with two mounted deer heads on the walls
Jacob Willingham, leftmost on middle row, during the VERO Food Animal Production & Rural Practice Tour

Jacob Willingham’s early years were spent at county fairs and major livestock shows across Texas.

The Milano native started showing pigs and eventually bought a handful of sows so he could raise his own pigs. Soon, he was showing heifers and even today continues to raise cattle to sell to family friends.

Not surprisingly, Willingham’s experience raising and showing large animals, as well as growing up with his family’s beloved family pets, helped guide his interest toward a career in veterinary medicine.

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a veterinarian,” he said.

Besides his early experience raising and showing livestock, the first-generation Aggie also kept a laser-like focus on his intended career path during his undergraduate studies at Texas A&M. In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science, Willingham worked as a student worker in the CVM’s Large Animal Hospital, where he was on call one night a week and one weekend a month to help set up the operating room for equine patients.

“I learned a ton,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of background in horses.”

Yet, while finishing his second year as a veterinary student at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), Willingham realized that he didn’t have enough knowledge about what’s involved in a mixed-animal veterinary practice to make a good decision about where to focus his career.

A group of students stand in a large warehouse listening to a man in a blue shirt speak
Jacob Willingham, fifth from left in maroon shirt, heard from industry experts during the VERO Food Animal Production & Rural Practice Tour

That’s where the intensive six-day Food Animal Production & Rural Practice Tour came in. Organized by the Veterinary Education, Research & Outreach (VERO) program, an innovative partnership between the CVM and West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) in Canyon, the tour offers students a window into the food animal industry and rural veterinary clinics. Since its inception in 2008, 100 students have participated in this tour.

WTAMU is located within 200 miles of where approximately 30 percent of the nation’s beef cattle are fed and finished.

“I wanted to go out to West Texas because that’s where a lot of our beef and dairy production is,” Willingham said. “I wanted to learn how a veterinarian works in that field, as well as in rural areas.”

The VERO Food Animal Production & Rural Practice Tour gave Willingham insight into in a mixed-animal practice and the beef cattle, dairy cattle, and swine industries.

During the tour, the aspiring veterinarians also learned about companion animals, farrowing operations, Jersey cow operations, Holstein feed yards, and packing plants, as well as WTAMU’s meat science facility, the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic lab, and the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA). Students heard presentations from Dr. Amber Finke at the Dimmitt Veterinary Clinic on equestrian sports medicine and acupuncture and they met with TCFA representatives to learn more about initiatives to audit cattle welfare and legislative issues related to animal agriculture.

Ultimately, the tour provided participants with insights into a variety of career paths that they might not otherwise have considered.

“I have thought about working in industry; right now, I see myself possibly owning a practice one day. But I initially see myself working for a practice that’s well-established in a rural area,” Willingham said.  “I would like to stay fairly close to home, but I’m not opposed to going to the Panhandle. They need good veterinarians up there.”

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For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Interim Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216