VA-MD Vet Med School Student Learns to "See Through A Farmer’s Eyes" During Externship

VA-MD Vet Med Student Mallan Willis
Virginia farmers rely on veterinarians for animal health and realize how critical a veterinarian is for the success of their farm.  To help increase the number of large food animal veterinarians in underserved areas and in rural Virginia, Virginia Farm Bureau developed The Virginia Farm Bureau Farm Externship, which exposes veterinary students to animal agriculture and rural Virginiato encourage them to establish food animal/mixed practices. The externship lasts for one week during the summer break (or another school break). 

The goals of the externship program are exposing students to farm life, rural communities and the benefits of being a member of Farm Bureau; giving students experience on the farm and expose them to Virginia Farm Bureau; establishing a relationship with the students and farmers in a rural community that will assist them in returning to a rural area to practice; and helping farmers  understand the need to reach out to new veterinarians in the community to help them get established.

Mallan Willis, a second year student at VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, recently completed her externship working alongside Peter Truban, who runs a cow-calf operation farmer in Shenandoah County and also serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau Board of Directors, as well as other farmers in the county. Here, she shares her experience. 

The Virginia Farm Bureau Externship was a fantastic learning experience. As a person who is interested in food animal medicine but grew up riding horses, I was looking to gain an understanding of how the food animal industry operated. 

In August, Mr. Peter Truban and various farmers in Shenandoah County graciously opened their doors and farms to teach me about food animals. The first day I learned the terminology commonly used to describe cattle and numerous practices done on the farm. I learned the names of all the different machinery that keeps the farm running efficiently and how they operate.

One particularly eye‐opening realization was that food animal producers double as crop producers. To keep costs at a minimum and maximize the growth or production of their animals, many farmers choose to grow their own feed. Mr. Truban and many of the farmers in the county not only have a main farm on which to keep their crops but also many additional farms or properties on which to grow corn, rye, wheat, and soybeans. They may chop the crops into silage or harvest the grains depending on the rations they are feeding each herd.

My favorite day was Wednesday, August 7th. That morning I visited the French Brothers Dairy where the local food animal veterinarian was performing a weekly herd health check. There were 22 cows that needed to be palpated to determine their location in the estrous cycle or to confirm pregnancy. Once the food animal vet was finished with his assessment of the cow, he permitted me to perform a second palpation to see if I could feel any reproductive structures like the cervix, uterus, ovary, or cysts.

Once the cows had been palpated, we assessed three additional cows that appeared to be sick. Following a physical exam, the veterinarian ruled that the first cow had a left displaced abomasum and surgery must be performed immediately. I had never seen a surgery on a cow before, and I must say that it is quite different from surgery on a horse.

After the cow had been sufficiently blocked and the site was surgically prepped, we opened up the cows right paralumbar fossa to have a look inside. I was given a glove and asked to feel the inflated abomasum and identify a few structural landmarks of that surgery including a piece of omentum called a sow’s ear. This is the medicine I love! 

While I enjoyed the medical aspect of this externship, I truly learned a lot about production agriculture. I was informed on the steps it takes to become a chicken farmer and what precautions must be taken when designing a building to increase air quality. I learned about the numerous laws and regulations farmers must follow in order to sell their products to the public and how to maintain food safety on their farm. 

I was also introduced to the daily difficulties farmers face to keep their farm running and gained a respect for those who work long hours to give the public food to eat.

The single, most important thing I learned was how to look at food animal medicine through a farmer’s eye and how I can use that understanding to be a better food animal practitioner.

If you are a student who is interested in this program or know someone who would be, please contact Lindsay Reames at 804-290-1019 or Also contact Lindsay if you are a producer member interested in working with a vet school student in the program.

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