Livestock veterinarians called to help animals, producers | Nvdaily

MOUNT CRAWFORD — The sun had just set in Mount Crawford as Ben Blankenship hopped the gate to greet two cows. His sons are raising for the county fair.

His sons, Colton, 13, and Preston, 15, joined him later, brushing the animals that their father truly knows inside and out.

Blankenship is one of the Shenandoah Valley’s livestock veterinarians, and like his colleagues, he found his way into the profession because of a love of agriculture that he works to impart to his children.

“I just knew that I always enjoyed working with animals,” Blankenship said earlier Friday.

He grew up on his family’s farm in Tazewell, where they had cattle, sheep and horses. Blankenship has been a livestock veterinarian with Ashby Herd Health since he graduated from the requisite program at Virginia Tech nearly two decades ago.

“It’s a lot of tough, long hours and a lot of tough work, and it’s all physical labor,” he said. “In this field, you get a feeling you can actually make a difference, whether it’s just working with someone on the productivity of a farm or how you can certainly make a difference in an animal’s life.”

Livestock vets such as Blankenship play a key role in helping the producers of Rockingham, Augusta, Page and Shenandoah counties healthy herds and contribute to the state’s largest cash cow — agriculture.

“We do more than push medicine through a syringe,” Blankenship said. “There’s a lot more to the job than that.”

“Every glass of milk that someone drinks, it’s our responsibility that is has no antibiotics and has no hormones in it,” he said.

A former co-worker of Blankenship’s, Dan Hadacek, of Mount Solon, is one of the two regional veterinary supervisors for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He oversees the 14 livestock markets and buying stations, veterinarians and processors over a large swathe of the commonwealth that includes the Shenandoah Valley and Eastern Shore.

“My job is to make sure Virginia animals and animal products can go anywhere,” he said.

That means inspections and working with anyone involved to keep Virginia animals and animal products disease-free so they can be exported and shipped anywhere in the world.

The stakes are high because if animals have diseases, that may affect trade and thus impact farmers and everyone in communities like Rockingham County, he said.

Hadacek worked at Ashby Herd Health near Dayton after working in Iowa for two years after graduating as a livestock veterinarian.

“That was the best move I ever made because this is the best area in the country to farm and have livestock, and the reason is the farmers in the Shenandoah Valley very much benefit from the dairy industry,” Hadacek said. “And the reason I’m saying that is when you have a large collection of dairy cattle, they take an extra standard of care as opposed to [other] cattle, sheep or pigs.”

“In other parts of the state, there are not dairies to have that base, and veterinary services are hard to find,” he said.

Another Mount Solon livestock veterinarian is Brendan Martin, 32, of Valley Herd Health in Verona, who also grew up on a farm like Blankenship and Hadacek.

Livestock vets “grew up in agriculture, we love agriculture, want to work with folks in the ag community,” he said on the way to perform a C-section on a sheep Friday afternoon. “That’s why I went to vet school.”

He agreed that the reason there’s a strong livestock veterinarian presence in the Valley is because there’s many animals here that need taken care of — a cycle that supports itself.

“Hopefully, we [livestock veterinarians] can work together with other entities and help producers be more efficient and the end of the day have a growing business,” Martin said.

This January, Bob Hill, 62, celebrated his first full year of retirement after 32 years in livestock health.

Hill grew up in Blacksburg and but now lives in Mount Crawford near Blankenship.

He also worked on his family farm as a kid, and his friend’s father was professor of dairy science at Virginia Tech.

“He employed us at the dairy farm at Tech, milking and doing some experiments for him,” Hill said.

Hill’s father proposed the idea that he could combine his love of the farm with his knack and passion for science. Hill attended undergrad at Virginia Tech and went to Georgia Tech because, at the time, there was no livestock veterinary school in Virginia.

“The professors in Georgia knew graduates were in Virginia doing large animal work, so they gave me the name of a practice — Dayton Veterinary Service,” he said.

He contacted the company a few years before he graduated and spent time when he could in the Valley before he joined full time. He worked there for over three decades.

He said the most fulfilling thing from the job over the years was helping producers succeed and aiding in animals’ recoveries.

However, not every case turned out perfect. Some animals wouldn’t make it, and it was a solemn occurrence, according to Hill.

“You just have to use your judgment to say this is a situation where this animal is not going to get any better and this animal is suffering and this is the humane thing to do,” he said.

“It was always a very serious business if you had to euthanize an animal,” Hill said.

He also said livestock veterinarians are the first line of defense between zoonotic diseases and the human population.

“That’s a very important part of human health to recognizing these diseases,” Hill said.

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