In his 40th year practicing swine veterinary medicine this May, 63-year-old Paul Armbrecht preaches one thing about his lifelong passion working with people and pigs: “Provide service to people and nobody can replace you. Those are the correct things, and they will stand the test of time.”
The quote actually comes from the late Al Leman, DVM, Armbrecht's mentor when he started out in practice at the Lake City, IA, Veterinary Clinic in 1973. Armbrecht served as a veterinarian in the Army from 1971 to 1973.
“I owe my start to Al Leman because he gave me as a young guy a chance, and under his wing I had the opportunity to learn what consulting and production medicine was about,” he says.
As a result, Armbrecht nabbed a job as a swine veterinary consultant for a Pig Improvement Company (PIC) multiplier farm owned by Leman in central Iowa. Armbrecht learned about recordkeeping at nearby Swine Graphics in Webster City, IA, a swine production and recordkeeping company in which Leman also held an interest.
“I found out that even though you had to have good records, you still had to be in the barn. Al Leman taught me if you don't know (the answer to a problem), take the time to find out. That is where I learned the value of ‘bucket time and a clipboard,’” Armbrecht points out.
It's a strategy that he employs in troubleshooting hog operations to this day. He explains that a few years back, he was the fourth veterinarian called in to review problems at a pig-finishing site. The barn office boasted the latest in computer technology, and stacks of records littered the desks in the barn office. But staff were perplexed about why there were so many rectal prolapses in just one area of the finishing barn.
Armbrecht took a bucket and a clipboard and sat in the barn and in five minutes he had diagnosed the problem. Pigs were “blowing their butts out” because the pigs were being chilled and piling on each other. The outdoor temperature sensor off a finishing barn was located right over the exhaust fan, so that even though the office computers showed a room temperature of 74°F, “in fact, the pigs were freezing because the outdoor temperature was 47°F,” he says. “Staff was sitting in the office and observing the sensors, which said everything was fine and dandy, but nobody paid any attention to the pigs,” he observes. The improper sensor location caused the curtain to be triggered to go down, but after the sensor was relocated, the curtain worked properly.
Though this problem occurred years ago, the same situation exists today, Armbrecht suggests. “We can have live streaming video and all that technology, but it still doesn't tell us what is going on in the barn. Somebody has got to be there for what I call bucket time.”
In a second example, staff at a 5,000-sow farm was stumped as to why farrowing rates were so terrible. Armbrecht's bucket time quickly determined that by using his voice to emulate a boar “growling at sows,” some sows showed signs of heat. No one had bothered to use the resident boar to find the last of the sows in a group that were in estrus, he explains.
In fact, with 100% artificial insemination (AI) used in many hog production systems today, many barn workers have never seen a boar actually breed a sow, Armbrecht says. Time is short to complete the breeding process, and virtually no facilities today have space for boars and sows to interact, to allow staff to assess whether females are in standing heat.
“Our reproductive expertise and reproductive improvements have stalemated because of our (barn) culture and how we have tightened up building systems. The 100% AI breeding systems can work, and many times do, but if we want to reach perfection, we've got to do what it takes to get there and almost no farm can deliver it,” he charges.
Room for Independent Producers
That shortcoming is one reason why the independent pork producers to whom Armbrecht regularly provides veterinary services have a secure place in the pork industry today. He smiles with pride as he ticks off examples of a number of successful clients who've learned they can do more in their operations with less:
A 400-sow producer wanted to reduce expenses and, with Armbrecht's advice, cut back sow numbers. “I told him that his wife (a full-time teacher) is worth more to this pig farm than she is to her salary at school,” he recalls. She quit teaching and took over farrowing and nursery duties. “He is making every bit as much money and using a batch farrowing system,” Armbrecht explains. “He hires the neighbor's high school kid to take care of the pigs while he and his wife go on vacation.”
A couple of 400-sow, farrow-to-finish farms are under one roof. “You can look down one hallway and see farrowing, nursery, gilt development, gestation and finishing. And these farms are still very successful. Gilts are grown on the farm in pens of 10-20 head where socialization equals immunity. Exposure to the resident organisms occurs through the development of these animals, and they have solid immunity. True isolation doesn't occur as these animals are grown right in the midst of the rest of the population on the farm,” Armbrecht explains.
Many of Armbrecht's independent producer clients still use boars for natural mating and typically house gestating sows in outdoor lots, simplifying heat detection and breeding, achieving farrowing rates of 90% or better.
These types of producers believe strongly in animal husbandry. “Animal care should come as second nature, and, it does with these producers I am blessed to work with. These producers own the animals and are not going to do anything to harm the production that is responsible for at least part of their livelihood,” he comments.
Back in the late '70s, the Lake City, IA, practice had five or more veterinarians on staff (compared to Armbrecht and two part-timers today). It was very traditional to sell a lot of animal health products. Armbrecht remembers holding meetings to help staff “sell more stuff.” It didn't sit well with him, and he suggested selling knowledge instead of products. That's his credo today.
That client base is much smaller, having dropped from around 200 to about 100. Instead of numerous small clients in Calhoun County and the surrounding areas of west central Iowa, Armbrecht is frequently forced to drive 80-100 miles to visit larger independent producers.
In the last three years, the loss of clients has accelerated. Situations range from producers who were on the edge of losing their farms to mandates from banks to depopulate herds as fast as possible.
Armbrecht says the situation crested last August through October, when the worst of the bad times forced a number of producers out of business. Others opted out to stop their losses, not wanting to offer another 80 acres of equity to stay in business. Banker support waned for some farm loans.
But the clinic has taken small steps to stabilize its client base by adding a handful of independent producers. Recently, a 750-sow family farmer who lives 113 miles from the clinic called and asked Armbrecht three questions: “Do you sell stuff? Do you sell semen? Do you do records?” Armbrecht answered “no” to all three questions. The final question was: “How soon can you come?”
Whether producers have 2,000 sows or three sows, Armbrecht treats and charges all clients alike — for the knowledge he can provide them, whether on the farm, by phone or by e-mail.
Beside his large clients, he also has small hobby farms and families whose children are getting into 4-H or FFA. Armbrecht holds the latter dear as they serve as the link to the future of animal agriculture, he believes. He takes on leadership roles in the summer to instruct students in how to raise and show their livestock.
Just like Armbrecht has a soft spot for independent pork producers — the majority of his clientele — he also delights in their diversity. There are beef calves to test and certify as conditioned, chickens to test for salmonella pullorum (state law), peacocks and pheasants to defeather, and llamas to castrate.
Foreign Animal Disease
“There is beauty in living in a small town and also a challenge in trying to be all things to all people. I have felt it is important if you are going to live in a community to be available for those people,” he says.
For local animal enthusiasts, his goals are to teach code of conduct, code of ethics and animal handling. In these days of heightened disease concerns, he's a stickler on proper biosecurity practices for exhibitors who may want to show animals at several fairs.
Extending that interest in biosecurity to foreign animal disease, Armbrecht was the first private practitioner to complete foreign animal disease diagnostic training at Plum Island's (NY) federal diagnostic laboratory.
He participated in two major swine disease eradication campaigns, launching his career at the end of the hog cholera eradication program and also serving as chairman of the Iowa Pseudorabies Committee during the height of that eradication campaign.
He now serves on the Foreign Animal Disease Committee of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV), and attended the March AASV Annual Meeting in Omaha, NE, where biosecurity guidelines were discussed for people returning from areas of natural disaster, such as Haiti.
He coordinates and serves on the emergency management group for the western zone of Iowa and is a member of the Iowa Veterinary Rapid Response Team.
“I hope an outbreak of foreign animal disease does not happen, but I am not going to be fearful if it does, because our team has been trained to act, to work in euthanasia and epidemiological investigations,” Armbrecht observes.
Test runs and exercises are conducted to determine how the team responds to potential foreign animal disease disasters.
With an inventory of 27 million pigs and large cattle and poultry industries, Iowa is showcased as a model because of its close involvement of veterinarians and other key people in the emergency response process, he says. Other states have reviewed Iowa's model, but haven't put a formal structure in place to deal with foreign animal diseases.
The clinic has been active in mentoring students interested in pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, he says. “We have seen a local resurgence in interest in veterinary medicine, including kids from the community enrolling in veterinary school. It is vitally important that we help them develop both an understanding and a passion for food animal production, including pigs.”
Armbrecht is serving this year as a mentor to one of the veterinary students selected to receive the National Pork Industry Foundation Internship Stipends (See http://www.aasv.org/students/npif.php for details.).
Armbrecht was the American Association of Swine Practitioners swine practitioner of the year in 1991. He was Iowa honorary master pork producer in 1988 and Iowa veterinarian of the year in 1989. His family was Iowa State Family of the Year in 2004. He and his wife, Marlene, were inducted into the Iowa State 4-H Hall of Fame in 2007.
The decision to become a swine veterinarian was instilled early in the life of Paul Armbrecht. His father was a hired man, and the family lived in the tenant house where meals were prepared on the old wood cook stove and water was recycled for Saturday night baths. A generous neighbor donated two sows to Paul and his brother, who bucket-fed them with leftover corn from nearby fields. Paul's sow had four pigs, and one of them topped out at 208 lb. and became the grand champion pig at the Story County Fair in 1956. Armbrecht says the trophy, displayed at his home in Rockwell City, fueled his interest in pig production.
But young Paul's keen eye was influenced by the local swine veterinarian. “I knew I had the right mindset that if someday I had the chance, I wanted to become a swine veterinarian because it always seemed like he was driving a new car,” Armbrecht recalls.
But he has maintained his humble nature. Instead of a shiny new car, he drives a 1996 Cadillac sporting 230,000 miles on the odometer. When that one dies, he vows to buy another used Cadillac to ride in comfort on long trips across Iowa.
Through the years, his modest nature has served him well; his wife has stuck by him for 41 years, and his five grown children are all graduates of Iowa State University. One son is a civil engineer in Kansas City. One daughter is a production engineer in Baltimore. Another daughter is a chemical engineer who has patented more than 30 food processes for General Mills in Minneapolis, MN. She and her husband, a mechanical engineer, have put their careers on hold to do mission work in Istanbul, Turkey. Another son has a degree in hotel and restaurant management and manages an Olive Garden restaurant. And another son has a degree in fisheries and wildlife biology and serves as activity director for The Homestead in Des Moines, a facility for people with autism.
After the children left home, his wife, who has a master's degree in child development, returned to work as an area specialist for children with handicaps and disabilities.
For his part, Armbrecht maintains his passion for people and pigs and feels blessed that he is still physically able to work the long hours to provide knowledge and expertise to his diversity of clients.
Sow Abuse Trial
His passion for people and pigs came under fire when Paul Armbrecht, DVM, agreed to testify as an expert witness in an animal welfare court case last year stemming from alleged cruelty to a sow on an Ohio hog farm. He had no idea of the backlash he and his family would endure.
The case originated with an undercover animal rights worker videotaping alleged cruelty involving the hanging of a dying sow.
The case was very contentious, leading to videos and the HBO movie “Death on a Factory Farm” that was shown repeatedly by the cable television channel, Armbrecht says.
The judge ruled the hog farm was innocent of cruelty and inhumane treatment charges, to which there were a number of outbursts within the courtroom, he recalls.
But that wasn't the worst of it. Armbrecht says animal rights zealots called his office and home and sent him and his family stacks of threatening letters over the ensuing months.
After a long lull, another, much calmer diatribe arrived by mail at the clinic office in mid-March.
Armbrecht chuckles about it now, but veiled threats to him and his family didn't go unnoticed. Local police departments and the Department of Homeland Security provided protection at the clinic, on farm visits to clients and at his home. His phone lines remain tapped to this day to monitor possible menacing calls.
He says he never actually saw or encountered any activists, but strange vehicles were seen at times, suggesting that he was under observation.
Armbrecht brusquely waved off the threats, promising himself that such nonsense would not deter him from serving his clients.
But he has not taken the situation lightly and has documented and recorded each activity with law enforcement officials.
A file cabinet is stuffed with hundreds of hate mail letters from hecklers from around the world — a quick reminder of how twisted sometimes the human species can become, Armbrecht says.