Elizabeth Lake: My Summer Internship in the Dairy Industry

I’m originally from Dallas. I’ve always loved animals, but I did not decide on a career in veterinary medicine until my junior year of college, when a veterinarian giving a guest lecture in my epidemiology seminar introduced me to the myriad ways veterinary work impacts human health–from ensuring food safety to identifying emerging infectious diseases.

I earned a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a master’s degree in environmental science at Stanford but chose to come home to Texas for veterinary school. I chose Texas A&M because I wanted to go to a school with strong programs in One Health and large animal medicine–and because I’m a proud Texan!

This summer I chose to take advantage of an opportunity to participate in the Food Animal and Rural Practice Summer Internship Program so I could gain experience in mixed/food animal medicine and build relationships with practitioners in another part of the state. I hope to go into mixed animal practice after graduating, and, thanks to this summer, I’m particularly interested in exploring opportunities in progressive dairy medicine.

One of the most pleasantly surprising things I learned this summer is how diverse the opportunities are for veterinarians in dairy medicine. I spent the month of July working with fabulous dairy veterinarians, including Dr. Brandon Treichler with Select Milk Producers and others at Deer Creek Feeding, LLC, who have fairly unconventional roles in dairy medicine; Dr. Treichler works as a milk quality consultant for large dairies in Texas and across the country and Deer Creek is a large heifer calf ranch that incorporates data analysis into the decisions practitioners make.

Both helped me understand that there is so much that dairy veterinarians can offer to their clients in addition to traditional services. I can see now that our training as DVMs gives us the broad knowledge and critical-thinking skills that we can use to help improve the health and performance of animals in many unique ways.

The mixed animal practitioners I shadowed did an great job of modeling community involvement, both as veterinarians and as citizens outside of their professional roles.

For example, one weekend, on a moment’s notice, several practitioners from across the Panhandle abandoned their plans to rush and help at a dairy facility that was hit by a tornado. This helped me realize the sense of community commitment on the part of the veterinarians I shadowed.

Another example was through their leadership of local scout troops and volunteer agencies; they also supported local families at crisis centers. My fellow Texas A&M interns and I were even able to contribute to the Canyon community because of Dr. Dee Griffin’s work. He showed us how to use our veterinary backgrounds to identify a community’s needs—specifically, the safe handling of animals for law enforcement officers and how to make animal snares that we gave to the Canyon Police Department to help them prevent dangerous animal bites.

I finished my summer internship knowing that I want to practice in an environment where my desire is to help others is supported and encouraged, and I look forward to the giving back to the community I serve when I graduate.

I had also heard, before this internship, about some of the incredible advances in technology that are occurring in animal agriculture, but it was exciting to actually see the utilization of this technology. Before moving back home to Texas, I spent six years in Silicon Valley, and while I’m by no means a “techie,” I’m really excited about currently available and future technologies to improve animal welfare and product quality so that we can produce safer and more affordable food.

While there will always be space for the development of new ideas in animal agriculture, what really struck me this summer was how we need to take greater advantage of the technology we already have. For example, large amounts of data are being generated every day in dairy parlors, calf farms, etc., but this means little until we organize this data and ask the right questions to improve animal health and management practices. It’s “free” data because in-place systems are already collecting it, but we can do more to figure out what the data are telling us and how we should respond to what we find. Veterinarians should be particularly interested in taking full advantage of this data.

I think this program can go a long way toward placing veterinarians in rural areas because it provides the introductions to practitioners and community members that “outsiders” like me would not be able to make on our own. From my own perspective and from talking with classmates, veterinary students are interested in practices that are economically sustainable in the long term, offer a high quality of medicine, and enable and encourage us to be contributors to and leaders in our communities, both within and outside of veterinary medicine.

I saw all of those traits in the rural communities I was in this summer, and I’m optimistic that many veterinary students who have the opportunity to experience all that rural life and rural practice have to offer will be attracted to the lifestyle as well.