Dr. Rick Daugherty looks over the cows' feed to ensure it is clean and dry.

Not Your Average House Call

Dr. Rick Daugherty slips a pair of blue coveralls over his jeans and shirt, as beads of sweat start to gather on his forehead. “As if it’s not hot enough already,” he chuckles as he pulls on his boots before jumping in his truck and taking off for his first farm visit of the day. A bank sign flashes the temperature is 95 degrees but Daugherty is oblivious of the heat. Working in extreme weather conditions is all part of his job as a large animal veterinarian.

“I’ve been in barns when it was 30 degrees below zero. Now that’s cold,” said Daugherty, shaking his head slightly at the memory. “You’re out no matter what the weather is like. The snow and heat might slow you down but you have to get to the farm like how the mailman has to deliver the mail.”

Daugherty is one of seven veterinarians at Sugarcreek Veterinary Clinic, where about 70 percent of the business deals with large animals. Sugarcreek, known as the “Little Switzerland of Ohio,” is in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country and has a thriving agriculture community. A key to the clinic’s success is that the area has a large concentration of horses and cows as well as whitetail deer, which are raised mostly for hunting preserves.

“You can’t make a living today if you don’t have a concentration of large animals,” he said, pointing out that there is a growing shortage of livestock veterinarians in parts of Ohio and across the country. The American Veterinary Medical Association recently said only about 15 percent of veterinary school graduates are pursuing food animal careers. Studies indicate that while demand for livestock veterinarians will increase 12 to 16 percent over the next six years, the number of large animal veterinarians will drop by 4 to 5 percent annually.

Daugherty bought the clinic in 1985, two years after he graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University. At the time he was the clinic’s only veterinarian and was available 24 hours a day.

“If the phone rang, there was always somebody there to pick it up. It meant working long hours every day, including holidays,” he said. When Daugherty first started, there were half a dozen livestock veterinarians in the area. His work started picking up as those large animal veterinarians either retired or switched to exclusively caring for small animals, which can be more profitable, less time consuming and less physically demanding.

“More veterinarians are leaning toward small animals,” he said. “They’re easier to handle for off-hour emergencies. There are certain dangers when you’re dealing with an animal that weighs 1,200 pounds. Most times they’re pretty calm but that’s not always the case. Everybody gets kicked eventually and banged around.”

With seven veterinarians at the clinic now, Daugherty’s work load is more reasonable. On a typical day, work starts at 7 a.m. with the veterinarians dividing up the work. Daugherty usually has several small animal appointments in the morning and sees six to 10 large animal clients throughout the day before ending around 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. When he is on call, he typically gets 10 to 12 calls a night and has to go out four or five times for emergencies.

All in a day’s work
Before heading out to his afternoon appointment on this hot summer day, Daugherty checks on Rascal, a dog that fell into a metal tank and swam for hours trying to prevent himself from drowning. The dog went into toxic shock and almost died. Satisfied that the dog’s IV is secure, the veterinarian goes into the clinic’s surgery room, explaining that it is used for small animals, including dogs, cats, goats and sheep. He then shows off the practice’s newest addition – a portable whitetail deer lab where the veterinarians can perform artificial insemination and treat broken legs and other nonsurgical problems.

Today Daugherty is working at Andreas Farms, a sixth-generation family farm that raises 1,500 dairy cows and is located a couple of miles from the clinic. The close proximity is beneficial to both Daugherty – who sometimes drives up to 100 miles to clients – and the farm.

“Having the vet clinic so close by is key to our operation,” said Ohio Farm Bureau member Matt Andreas, who runs the farm with his father, Dan. “The large animal vet shortage is scary. If the clinic wasn’t here, we’d probably have to employ our own vet. Healthy cows equal healthy milk. Most people go to the doctor only once a year but our cows have a doctor here every week.”

Every Thursday for three or four hours, Daugherty visits the dairy farm to check out not only the health of the cows but their environment. On this day, herdsman Jack Smith greets the veterinarian, and they briefly talk about some concerns before starting to work. Today they will be trimming hooves, checking cows for pregnancy and looking over illness and production records of the cows.

Daugherty pushes on one of the Holstein cows to get her into a chute so she can have her hooves trimmed. Smith scrapes the manure from a hoof and begins trimming as Daugherty looks for abscesses or other problem areas.

“If you have a bad spot, you glue a piece of wood to the other hoof so the bad hoof is kept off the ground and the air can get to it and heal,” he explained.

Task completed, Daugherty walks down the barn and digs down into the cows’ feed, making sure it is cool, dry and not moldy. Satisfied, he pulls on a shoulder-length plastic glove and slips vaccination medicine into his back pocket. He’s now ready to start pregnancy checks.

“Unfortunately, somebody has to do it. That’s the dirty part of it,” he laughed, walking between rows of cows that are either eating or lounging on rubber filled mats covered with sawdust. Large fans hanging from the ceiling and sprinklers make the barn several degrees cooler than it is outside. Today Daugherty and an assistant herdsman are checking 61 cows to see if they are pregnant. Those that are pregnant or just two months away from giving birth are given vaccinations to ensure the mother and calf stay healthy.

“It’s unusual not to have a calf today. That probably means there will be a dozen tomorrow,” he said. “Everybody likes delivering babies. It’s a minor part of my job but I love that and getting something weird like triplets.”
Daugherty pauses while reflecting on what he likes about being a food production veterinarian.

“I like talking and dealing with clients and using my veterinary skills to enhance the livelihood and productivity of animals,” he said. “Healthy animals are happy animals and that’s what we all want.”

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County. Photos by Bryan Rinnert.

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Amy Graves 

Amy Graves is a communications specialist for Ohio Farm Bureau.