Expo’s Vet On Call

August 16, 2010 11:16 AM

Rick Halvorson, Expo’s vet since 1993, says that what keeps him coming back to the event is the variety of cases and the people he meets and works with.

The 2010 World Dairy Expo is set for Sept. 28-Oct. 2 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis.


Anybody who knows Rick Halvorson will tell you he is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s friendly, personable, a good storyteller and has a keen sense of humor.

Even so, Halvorson is the last person many of the cattle exhibitors at World Dairy Expo want to come into contact with while they’re at the show.
When Halvorson’s around, it usually means there’s a problem brewing. For the last 16 years, he’s been the veterinarian on call at Expo, the guy responsible for helping exhibitors make sure their world-class show cattle stay healthy while on the Expo grounds.
In his day job, Halvorson is one of seven vets at the Whitewater Veterinary Hospital in Whitewater, Wis. (about 45 minutes southeast of Madison). He started there in 1978, fresh out of vet school at Oklahoma State University, and made his first work trip to Expo in 1993 as an assistant to Leland Allenstein (founder of the White-water Veterinary Hospital in 1950). He’s been coming back ever since.  
Halvorson starts preparing for Expo months before the event by ordering the supplies he’ll need to stock his truck. "At home, I do other kinds of work—reproductive work, herd health checks and so on. But here at Expo, you can have any kind of emergency. So I need to have a lot of different kinds of supplies on hand that I wouldn’t use as part of my regular practice."
While at the show, Halvorson’s daily routine is taxing. Most days, he gets to the Expo grounds around 7 a.m. to find a stack of notes from exhibitors asking him to stop by to take a look at one of their animals. "Often, we’ll get there even earlier," he says. "Something will happen to a cow in the middle of the night, and we’ll get a call to come over and have a look at her."
The pace at the show is brisk. "We’ll take a break for lunch, go off the grounds for supper and then come back to the site for a couple of hours. Usually, I get back to the hotel around 9 or 10 p.m. Once I’m there, I still have to write up my billing slips for the day and make sure the truck is stocked."
The major health challenge for animals at Expo is dealing with the stress that goes along with traveling. "Many of them travel long distances to get here and traveling is difficult for some cows," Halvorson says. "It upsets their rumen, rumen function and milk production. Also, once they’re here, they’re congregated in one of the barns with other cows. It can get dusty in there when the stalls are being bedded. And they have to contend with changing weather conditions too."
While Halvorson might be the point person, he’s quick to note that keeping animals healthy during their stay at Expo requires teamwork on the part of many individuals. As an example, he cites Bonnie Willson, a receptionist at the Whitewater Veterinary Hospital who comes to Expo for three days to write interstate papers for animals sold at the breed sales. "Sale animals come to Madison with extra health tests already done, so that after each breed sale, an interstate health certificate can be written to safely get each animal to its new home. It’s an important, time-consuming job. Bonnie does it very well."
From a veterinary medicine standpoint, Halvorson says, one of the fascinating things about being at Expo is working on a wide variety of cases. "Every year, you have some odd cases, really unusual things that you’ll probably never see again."
One episode that stands out for Halvorson involved a Brown Swiss cow several years back. "She had been here for a couple of days and her ration changed. She developed bloat and I couldn’t relieve it."
Halvorson tried a variety of measures, but couldn’t relieve the bloat. "Of course, she was having great difficulty breathing. She was at the end of her rope and I couldn’t get the air off. Finally, the cow fell down in the straw. I turned to the owner and said, ‘I’m going to have to do a rumenotomy right here.’"
He took out his pocketknife, cut a hole in the cow’s stomach and drained the rumen contents out onto the straw. He sewed up the incision, got a drain into the animal and put her on penicillin.
"She responded beautifully," he says. "The next day, she not only was alive but her temperature was back to normal. She came back to the show the following year.
"I’ve only done that once in all my years in practice," he says. "The thing is, you’re usually not cowside when they have bloat like that. When I get a call at home like that, the cow is usually either dead or better by the time I get to the farm. Here I happened to be standing right there when it happened."
Some situations that develop at Expo simply can’t be handled cowside. "Occasionally, we have to refer the cow to a place that has better technology and can analyze blood and do other testing," Halvorson says. "In those cases, we send them over to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine right here in Madison."
Overall, Halvorson says, he’s impressed by the top-notch care given to the cows at Expo. "They have it pretty good here," he says. "They’re bedded on nice, clean bedding packs, they get to go for walks every day and everything they need is delivered to them." 
While Halvorson appreciates having an opportunity to work with "the greatest cows anywhere" during his weeklong stint at Expo, he says it’s the people he meets and works with during the show that keep him coming back year after year.
"A lot of people think of what I do as a cow business," he says. "But it’s really a people business. It’s fun to come here and see the same people year after year. They’re fantastic. It’s wonderful to be a little, small part in a great show like this."


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