Vet med students ensure safe, speedy biosecurity check-in for dairy expo cattle

Sept. 27, 2012

Scores of trailers will begin rolling into Madison on Friday, Sept. 28, delivering 2,500 show cows to the Alliant Energy Center for the upcoming World Dairy Expo. But to prevent the spread of disease among the cattle, the health status of each animal must be verified before they are unloaded. Fortunately, volunteer students from the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine keep this process running as smoothly as possible.

Photo: cow and exhibitor

An exhibitor shows a cow at the 2011 World Dairy Expo. UW-Madison veterinary medicine students will be checking cattle arriving at this year’s expo to verify their health and prevent the spread of disease.

Photo courtesy of World Dairy Expo

As part of a program developed by Sheila McGuirk, professor of large animal internal medicine and food animal production medicine, more than 60 students will be working in eight-hour shifts over a period of 52 hours to check in all of the cows. This involves examining health papers submitted by veterinarians who have inspected the cattle at their points of origin all over the United States and Canada and matching those papers with identification tags. Many of the arriving cows have endured extremely long journeys and must be milked and bedded down in straw as soon as possible, so speed at check-in is critical, says McGuirk.

"Some of these trailers have 25 cows in them, they've been on an 18-hour drive, and they want to get out and get on with it," McGuirk says. "This is why the students are so important."

First-time student volunteers receive a course credit after attending an orientation and working two eight-hour shifts. But many students have returned for a second and third year because they enjoy the experience, McGuirk says. They also gain a better understanding of the mistakes veterinarians sometimes make in filling out certificates of veterinary inspection.

"They won't make those mistakes when they're in the profession," says McGuirk.

“I will definitely be able to make sure we have everything in line so when they get to a show like the expo, they don’t have anything to worry about.”

Andrew Dietsche

Third-year veterinary student Andrew Dietsche, who is returning for a third time to participate in the check-ins, agrees with McGuirk's assessment. He plans to work with cattle when he graduates, and he feels his experience at the expo has prepared him well for conducting local inspections for dairy producers.

"I will definitely be able to make sure we have everything in line so when they get to a show like the expo, they don't have anything to worry about," he says.

The program began in 2010 when expo management was looking to enhance their security. Recognizing that examining each cow would be a tall order for the small team from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection traditionally tasked with biosecurity, the management looked for help from McGuirk, a renowned expert in the dairy field.

"Last year, 2,500 cows from 37 states and seven provinces came to the expo," says Laura Herschleb, dairy cattle manager for the expo. "We wanted to do our part to ensure that everyone was going back home with healthy animals."

She says McGuirk and the veterinary medical students are performing an incredibly valuable service to the expo and to the dairy industry in Wisconsin and beyond. Even better, there have been no animal health risks on their watch.

"The only issues we've encountered so far involve health papers that have been filled out improperly," says Herschleb. "We're hoping that streak continues for many years to come."

Students will be checking cattle next to the Arena on Fairgrounds Drive from 8 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 28 until noon on Sunday, Sept. 30.

—By Nik Hawkins