Bob Morrison feels his best work is yet to come. And he feels the work he did yesterday was his best so far.
That drive for continual improvement to better the global swine industry is what makes Morrison, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, one of this year’s Masters of the Pork Industry.
One of the many projects that Morrison has brought to the benefit of the swine industry was born out of the spread of the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. He remembers sitting in a committee meeting of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians PRRS Task Force at the PRRS Symposium in Chicago, and veterinarians were talking about their experiences with PRRS.
“I came out of that committee meeting and was talking with one veterinarian. ‘You just told people in the committee meeting about your experience with this system. If you told me how many herds you had break, and if he [another veterinarian] also told me how many herds he had break, then we could put together a frequency table and tell you what collectively we have.’”
They soon had three veterinarians on board, and two weeks later the first Swine Health Monitoring Project report was issued. That weekly report, issued on Fridays, shows the national PRRS incidence and prevalence. What started with three participating swine systems has grown to 26 systems willing to voluntarily share health data with the industry.
Morrison says about 40% of the nation’s sow population is represented in the participating systems, and the SHMP has grown and changed with the industry since that first report in 2011. The SHMP added porcine epidemic diarrhea data when that virus began infecting herds, and last fall it added Seneca Valley virus information to the data collection, but Morrison says SHMP will go well beyond simple pathogen reporting.
“Prevalence and incidence reporting is the most visible impact of this so far, but we can work together for outbreak investigations. We can be so much better if we share each other’s data, not in a blaming way, but in a learning way — for prevention. So we’re working on building that capacity to do a better job of helping the industry.”
Morrison says the project will also work on risk and networking analysis, given location and health status and potential movement. A producer can then ask, “What happens if I move pigs from here to there, not only for me, but for you, and what’s the ripple effect?”
A key point of this entire project, in Morrison’s eyes, is the sharing of the data to learn more. Incidence and prevalence data is shared, and that data is then used to learn how the swine industry can manage these diseases. “Then the outbreak investigation and risk analysis complete this, and all are directed at building capacity to be better at detecting and giving the industry a chance to respond to the next emerging pathogen in a voluntary way.” All of these are relatively short-term applications that get producers to participate “so that we can accomplish the long-term goal. … we look for ways to make the producer money tomorrow, so the producer will participate in the five-year goal to have a national capacity to do a better job of responding” to the next emerging disease.
Trust and transparency are what make the SHMP and other regional disease control programs a success, and Morrison points to the producer-veterinarian relationship as a big reason. “Leaders in the swine industry are incredibly insightful, smart and cooperative, and have high expectations of us in academia. … sometimes the vets lead our producers, and sometimes producers lead our veterinarians, and I think that is one reason why our national industry is so damn good. … we rely totally on that relationship.”
Another team effort that Morrison sees benefiting the global swine industry is the Allen D. Leman Swine Conference held annually in St. Paul (cceevents.umn.edu/allen-d-leman-swine-conference), bringing in about 900 swine veterinarians and other professionals working in swine production and animal health management from more than 20 countries for this four-day educational event. Leman, a U-M Extension veterinarian, and Jim Hanson, director of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s continuing education program, started this annual conference in 1974.
Leman left the university in 1986 and died unexpectedly in 1992. The conference was renamed in his honor, a name that Morrison takes seriously in the continuance of relevant information for swine professionals.
Morrison is the program chairman for the conference, and Montse Torremorell, Allen D. Leman Chair in Swine Health and Productivity and associate professor in swine veterinary medicine, says, “Dr. Morrison makes it look so easy” planning the annual conference.
“I don’t know that it gets any easier,” Morrison says of planning the conference, “but I can tell you this year’s program will be the best ever, and last year’s was the best ever. I’m really excited about this year’s program, and as I look at it, I think, man, this is really going to be good.”
With more than 20 countries represented at the St. Paul Leman conference, it is easy to see the international lure of the event. With that in mind, and not settling for the status quo, Morrison’s team decided to take the conference on the road, with the introduction of Leman China four years ago. This year’s China version will be Oct. 17-18 in Nanjing.
“Leman China has been extremely successful, and it meets our mission,” he says. “We have a duty [as a university] first to Minnesota, second the country, and then to the world.”
Morrison credits Thomas Molitor, veterinary medicine department chairman, with taking the impact of China Leman one step further. One of the objectives of the Leman China conference is to make money with the “profit” from Leman China going to cover the stipend for a Chinese student to do graduate work at the U-M, “and then return to their homeland, propagate what we taught here and use that knowledge in China.”
How’d we get here?
For a man who Torremorell says makes things look so easy, Morrison’s trip to the present was anything but a stroll. Everybody has obstacles, turning points and gentle nudges (or shoves) that make us who we are, and Morrison has had his share.
Growing up in Moose Jaw, Morrison was encouraged by his parents to become either an engineer or a lawyer. “In the 11th or 12th grade when you’re asked what you want to be, you have to say something, so I said veterinarian,” Morrison says in his office on the St. Paul campus. “My parents had trust in my choices.” He admits his father, who was a chemical engineer at an oil refinery, did question the decision of working with pigs when the younger Morrison took him to a Minnesota hog farm. “He kind of wondered what on earth I was doing when he experienced close-up the flies, the dust and the smell.”
Morrison enrolled in veterinary school at the University of Saskatchewan. “I must admit that I exaggerated a bit when I said in the interview that I was really interested in food animals. At that time they really needed food-animal veterinarians.” Morrison had some experience with food animals, but was more inclined to work in a small-animal practice.
But as can happen, some college professors had a profound impact on the young Morrison and altered the route that he had in mind for himself. Otto Radostits was at the top of that list, though Morrison says the University of Saskatchewan professor probably didn’t realize the influence he had on Morrison.
“He had a profound influence on my career direction,” Morrison says, “even though we never really clicked, as you might with a faculty member. … we didn’t have similar personalities or interests. We looked at things differently, and he would never know that I thought the world of him, but I did. He had a profound influence on me.
“‘It’s not for not knowing, it’s for not looking,’ he would always say. We know all the facts. But we have to ask the right questions, get rid of all your preconceived notions and do a proper investigation. He was so smart and so insightful.”
Radostits co-wrote Veterinary Medicine: A textbook of the diseases of cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and goats, which Morrison calls the bible of food-animal veterinary medicine.
In addition to laying the groundwork for Morrison venturing into diagnostics, Radostits was also responsible for turning Morrison on to hogs. In Morrison’s third year of veterinary school Radostits had a friend who was looking for some weekend help on his hog farm. “For whatever reason I wanted to go work weekends on Frank Pfeiffer’s farm,” he says. “That was my first exposure to pigs, and I grew to really like it.”
Gary Morgan, a practicing veterinarian in Prince Edward Island, took on Morrison to work during the summer while he was still a veterinary student. “He took me under his wing and gave me enormous leeway to go and help him on farm calls. ‘You like pigs, then you go do pigs.’ Sometimes in life, it’s not how much you know, but how much you care, and I really wanted to help those pig farmers.”
Morrison admits, “I didn’t know a thing about pigs. We were a beef school in Saskatchewan. But they didn’t know that I didn’t know, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
One of his first cases was 36- to 48-hour-old piglets with diarrhea, “dying like flies.” Anyone would think E. coli.
But rather than going with Otto Radostits’ advice, “when you hear hoofbeats, don’t look for zebras,” he went to his car and got out his Merck Veterinary Manual, “looking up what can cause diarrhea. I think I diagnosed erysipelas because probably somewhere on the 14th page of erysipelas it said it can cause diarrhea. Well, that’s the most outlandish, unrealistic diagnosis that you could possibly imagine, but
whatever. I prescribed something, and probably half the pigs died, but some lived, and I showed that I cared, and the producer probably loved it. … again it wasn’t what I knew, but how much I cared.”
Morrison was driven by the fact that producers enjoyed having him come to their farms, and “I knew I had to go learn more about pigs.”
Reg Thomson was dean at the university at Guelph and took a sabbatical to found a new veterinary school in PEI. “With his academic background — and being a heck of a nice guy — he befriended me and asked, ‘Why don’t you go back to school?’”
More schooling was the last thing on Morrison’s to-do list as he readily admits he had less-than-stellar academic success. “I am the poster-child for underperforming youth. My grades weren’t the best.” Thomson’s more-schooling suggestion was based on the premise that a graduate degree would give Morrison more knowledge that could then be used in the field when he returned to veterinary practice.
About this same time, Al Leman was starting the swine program at the U-M, and “for whatever reason I wanted to come here and was very fortunate that Al [Leman] accepted me.” Admittedly, he didn’t have the grades to get into the doctorate program, but he got into the master’s program, worked to better his grades, and ultimately got into the doctorate program. “I grew up a little bit and realized that I really liked science,” he says.
Morrison credits D.L.T. (Larry) Smith, the dean of the veterinary school at the University of Saskatchewan, with giving him a necessary nudge, or shove, onto the road of academic success. “I was pretty immature; I did not take it seriously. I decided that I wanted to be a veterinarian, and then blew off my first year of college,” he says, recalling a letter he received at the end of his first year that basically said “don’t come back.”
“Then I had the audacity to set up a meeting with the dean of the veterinary school early in my second year. … He [Smith] sat down with me, closed the door, and looked at my first-year records. I don’t know how he kept a straight face.”
Smith’s wakeup call and guidance that the young Morrison would need to achieve well over 90% in all of his second-year classes to even be eligible to be considered to enroll in veterinary school was what Morrison needed. “He basically told me, ‘If you want to do this, here’s the path.’”
Obviously, Morrison took that path, got his veterinarian degree, and went into practice with Morgan in a two-person general practice working mainly with dairy on Prince Edward Island. “I got to do the pigs, and I really enjoyed it,” he says.
In 1981, Morrison came to the U-M to begin his graduate work under the mentorship of his major adviser, Al Leman, as well as co-advisers Carlos Pijoan, HanSoo Joo and Harv Hilley. Morrison also bases his foundation on working with epidemiologists Stan Dietsch and Ashley Robinson while working toward his graduate degree.
Morrison completed his doctorate at the U-M before going to work for the United Nations on a beef development project in South America. His interest in swine lured him back to the U-M in 1986, as a pseudorabies position was available. That disease, and its ultimate eradication, became Morrison’s focus. “I never thought I would become an academic or, moreover, stay here my entire career.”
Though Morrison has remained in academia for most of his career, he has stressed to his team and his students the importance of carrying on the Leman legacy: “Do work that matters.” In that vein, Morrison can’t stress enough the importance to keep one foot in the field, so the work being done at the university is relevant to hog producers in the barns. To put that in practice, while Morrison was working on his doctorate, he worked part time with Roger Green, a practicing veterinarian in Faribault, Minn., just south of the Twin Cities.
Morrison maintains the producer connection today, as he spends one-quarter of his time working for the Pipestone System, based in Pipestone, Minn., a system with 200,000 sows and 23 swine veterinarians, “so by working with those fabulous vets, I can be very close to what they’re experiencing.”
Morrison and his wife, Jeanie, also are part owners of two 1,500-sow farrow-to-finish farms in west-central Minnesota. In addition to raising pigs, Bob and Jeanie have also raised three children: Jessie, 31; Peter, 29; and Willie, 25. None of the children followed in their dad’s footsteps, nor did he encourage them to do so. “We just encouraged them to go to school and do well.”
Doing well and doing relevant work are key points to what makes Bob Morrison Bob Morrison.
“I hope you can look at anybody’s work here [U-M], and you can ask them why they are doing that, what’s the point, and they’ll be able to articulate the reasons this is important for veterinarians and the swine industry of Minnesota, the country and the world,” depending on the scope of the project.
Sharing that knowledge has always been important for Morrison, and for the past 20 years he; Gordon Spronk, veterinarian with Pipestone Veterinary Clinic and Pipestone Systems; and Tom Wetzell, a professional services veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc., have produced audio programs covering various swine health topics. “When we started this, we had three main objectives: a chance to learn, a chance to teach and a chance to have some fun together,” Morrison says.
Looking back on the people who mentored and influenced him along the way, Morrison, 63, tries not to think too hard about what he will be remembered for.
“I enjoy teaching, I love fertile minds who want to learn. I’m curious; I always want to learn more. I hope I have helped and inspired others along their path as others have helped me,” he says.
Putting his money where his mouth is, Bob and Jeanie have put seed money in an endowment to help an inner-city student get a chance to attend the University of Minnesota. “It’s directed at urban kids with a financial need, and we’re hoping to be able to give something back to the community,” he says.
Another legacy he hopes carries through is that yearning for knowledge and the mission to “do work that matters.” He hopes he has instilled that desire in his past and current students, and those yet to come.