Growing up on a small pig farm near Franklin, IN, just south of Indianapolis, Larry Rueff, DVM, fell in love with pigs as a 4-H'er managing 10-12 sows of his own.
Right after graduating from Purdue University in 1979 with a doctorate of veterinary medicine degree, he went to work at a five-person mixed practice at Greensburg, IN. As with many rural veterinary practices in those days, it was common to work with swine and cattle during the week, but there were also dogs and cats to attend to some evenings and on weekends.
But Rueff's love of pigs won out, so in 1984 he opened his own, swine-exclusive veterinary practice at Greensburg, IN, aptly named Swine Veterinary Services.
“An all-swine practice was pretty unusual at the time,” Rueff recalls. “There were not very many such practices in the United States. Max Rodibaugh, DVM, also had one in Frankfort, IN, but we were very few and far between.”
In fact, a few folks asked if he had lost touch with his senses when he announced the all-pig practice, pointing out that the plan was not a normal career path.
“You have to remember, it was the mid-1980s, and not many people were doing that. But I was young — just 28 years old — and not thinking of it that way,” he explains.
One of Rueff's early mentors, Purdue University Extension veterinarian Ken Meyer, now retired, was his counselor during college. He strongly encouraged Rueff to learn more about veterinary medicine by “studying abroad,” which in this case meant heading west of the Mississippi River to do an externship in Iowa.
By the same token, after Rueff had been out of veterinary school about a year and a half, Meyer urged him to spend time in southern Minnesota visiting the veterinary practices at Fairmont, MN (Kent Kisslingbury, DVM) and Worthington, MN (Connie Schmidt, DVM, and Wayne Freese, DVM), to learn more about swine-exclusive clinics.
“I was a young, wide-eyed kid and they were kind enough in Minnesota, like so many people in this veterinary profession, to let me come spend some time with them, and see and learn about what they were doing,” he recalls.
That experience gave Rueff some valuable guidance to operate his own swine veterinary practice for eight years from 1984 to 1992.
During those early years in a solo swine practice, Rueff and his wife, Gail, were raising two very young daughters, Laura and Erin. Rueff was just like any other normal, energetic swine veterinarian — a hard charger putting in 12-hour days and loving every minute of it.
Living in Greensburg at the time, he recalls arriving home late one night, about 9 p.m., and seeing his neighbor across the street sitting on his front porch, a common sight in the Hoosier state in the summer. He went to sit and visit with the neighbor for a spell, and got what he calls the best advice he's received during his nearly 30-year veterinary career. The neighbor said, “Larry, they assassinated President Kennedy, and we had another president in five minutes. Remember, you are not that important.”
Rueff says the sage advice stuck with him and reminded him to be careful, not to overdo it and maintain the proper balance between work and family.
In 1992, he added partner Dennis Villani, DVM, and three years later, Matt Ackermann, DVM, also joined the clinic as a partner.
Rueff says the younger veterinarians keep him young and challenge him. The trio has worked hard to stay focused and service producers in Indiana and beyond.
In these times of constant change, Rueff expresses pride at the long history of stability of his veterinary team, only topped by his marriage of 32 years this month, and the initiative of his two daughters. Laura is in medical school and Erin starts optometry school this fall.
Reflecting on Industry Changes
Changes in the swine industry have been striking, Rueff notes. In 1984, when he opened his practice, a large client owned 400 sows. “Most of my clients were 50-200 sows, farrow-to-finish operations.”
During the 1980s, farms were able to eradicate lice, mange and atrophic rhinitis, and take steps to control E. coli scours. “The problems we had then were kind of simple, because we knew that Bug A caused Disease B and you fixed it with Drug C. It worked and you were done!”
The 1990s brought larger farms and larger problems, such as Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia, pseudorabies and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), says Rueff. Swine farms went to multi-site production systems to spread out the hog density and lower the disease threshold. It has only partially succeeded, as we still face challenges with PRRS and now circovirus, he says.
Over the years, client numbers have shrunk and hog numbers have grown. Now their average client produces 50,000 to 100,000 pigs a year. And the practice, while still focused on Indiana, has expanded beyond state lines.
Rueff has focused more on international consulting the last 15 years. He has averaged about one trip to China annually since 1996. Extremely high pig density has resulted in numerous disease challenges there, he explains. Half of the pigs are raised in backyards, and the other half consists of more typical commercial production.
“But more and more, the modern pig farm is looking similar around the world, because information transfers and the technologies that work, work everywhere,” he comments.
The relatively rapid growth of hog operations, here and abroad, has probably been the biggest surprise to Rueff. “These 10,000-sow units are pretty overwhelming when you think back just 30 years, when 300 sows was a lot of sows.”
As a veterinary consultant, the accelerated growth in the size of hog farms, the reduction in the actual number of hog farms and more time spent on production record analyses has resulted in less time seeing pigs. His actual time on farms has dropped from 85% down to 50%. Veterinarians need to strive to see pigs more often, he stresses.
Over the years, Rueff has drawn on the inspiration provided by Indian Creek (IN) high school coach Ralph Sieboldt, who supported him and taught him to make the most of his talents and to help hog farm clients and employees.
In the future, Rueff realizes it will become increasingly important to “keep clients moving forward” as they face the rising costs of doing business. In this regard, he foresees big changes in the next five years as hog producers face new regulations in the areas of auditing and food safety.
“We've got the safest food supply in the world, but we are going to have to continue to prove that,” he emphasizes.
But Rueff also stresses that successful producers and veterinarians need to refocus on the basics and the pig's biology. The industry has accumulated much science and research through the years. But the objective remains the same — keep every pig fed, watered, warm and dry.
Rueff is a past president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, and in 2002 was named the organization's Swine Practitioner of the Year. In addition to the veterinary clinic, Rueff owns two boar studs and co-owns a 3,750-sow operation.
— Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor