Kent Schwartz sees his work as a clinical professor at the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory as CSI and Sherlock Holmes, unlocking clues hidden in tissue samples to arrive at a herd health diagnosis.

Kevin.Schulz, senior content specialist

June 5, 2017

11 Min Read
'17 Pork Masters: Schwartz takes service to producers seriously, personally
Kent Schwartz has been at the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory since 1987, and he still gives personal attention to each of the 1,500 to 3,000 cases that cross his desk each year.National Hog Farmer/Kevin Schulz

One of the aims of a land-grant university is service to its stakeholders. That is a mission that Kent Schwartz takes very seriously as clinical professor at Iowa State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Ames.

One would think that would be hard to do and stay fresh in his role as a “veterinary diagnostician with a little training in pathology” who has seen over 70,000 cases over his 30 years in his windowless office at the VDL. He doesn’t belabor the point that he is simply looking at another case, with just another disease diagnosis that will be sent back to the submitting client.

“There are real people involved,” he says. “People are paying for this information. I just feel it’s a responsibility to respond to that. In a way if it’s my dad or my uncle, how can I help with that? … you need to keep the servant in mind. The clerking of this is a pain in the butt, but you have to be sympathetic to what’s at stake, whose 4-H animal this is; it’s all attitude.”

That attitude of putting service ahead of yourself is a worthwhile trait, a trait worthy of earning Schwartz the honor of one of this year’s Masters of the Pork Industry.


Kent Schwartz uses what he calls the “truth machine” — a microscope on his desk that reveals the molecular level of swine pathology.

CSI or Sherlock Holmes
Schwartz parallels his work, as well as his other diagnosticians at the lab, to that of Sherlock Holmes for the older crowd, or a crime scene investigator for the new crowd. “Every case is a snowflake or a Christmas present,” he says. “Each one is different, and you never know what you’re going to find.”

The diagnostic lab receives 75,000-plus cases a year, equating to about 1.2 million tests each year, from veterinarians or producers with paperwork indicating field observations of what may be going on in the specific herd, as well as samples that will assist the VDL staff in pinpointing a diagnosis.

“We’re trying to discover evidence, evaluate the quality of that evidence and get that evidence to tell us a story in a very objective, fact-based way of what a likely scenario/outcome/diagnosis really is,” Schwartz says. “One of my primary rules is to get people to slow up long enough to think about things for a bit rather than jumping to a conclusion.”

As mentioned before, each submitted case is accompanied by paperwork of a preliminary diagnosis from the veterinarian or producer in the field. Though he admits you need to have a context to work from, “I remind myself that it’s so easy to jump to conclusions, and to have a preconceived idea of what to look for. I try to remind my clients of that, too,” he says. “They tell you to look for PRRS [porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome], so you look for PRRS, and if you find PRRS, then it must be PRRS. Really? Is that enough? When you think about it, it seems so simple, but insensibly we jump to conclusions, and many are wrong.”

Instead, the job of the diagnostician, or at least as Schwartz sees it, is to go that step further.

Looking at submitted documentation, he says, “They’re coughing, so it’s probably respiratory; could be the flu. But I better not say that yet.”

But wait, there’s a lesion. “This cough, and this lesion, and only 10% are affected and not 80%. We try to narrow it down and use our resources to try to come up with an answer that is most likely to be right. With gross lesions, then you gotta go, ‘I think it really might be mycoplasma (pneumoniae).’ It looks like there may be some bacteria with it, so you come up with that differential diagnosis.”

The true test comes when Schwartz employs the “truth machine,” a microscope that occupies a large portion of his desktop. “What I saw grossly, well, is that real? Or did I miss something, or is there something else that I didn’t think about?” he asks, not casting doubt on his initial diagnosis, but implying that preconceived diagnosis can get in the way of what’s really going on in the animal and the entire herd. “A whole lot of things are going on at the cellular level, just like at the clinical level, only smaller. It could be all these things.”

Schwartz says it is imperative that all the information, all this evidence lines up to a diagnosis. Veterinarians and producers can request that certain tests be performed once the samples are at the lab, but he says the mission of finding the answer may lead to still more tests. But tests cost money, so do you got that extra mile? “If we think another test will help us find a better answer, we will do that next test,” he says. “When we find the answer, and explain why we ran another test, they have no problem paying for it.”

Though the VDL does get paid for running tests on submitted samples, Schwartz appreciates that fact that he is not “selling anything other than what I hope is objective information, and that really appeals to me,” he says. “We arrive at a diagnosis, then push the results to practitioner, veterinarian or producers so that they can make decisions on intervention and prevention.”

The ISU VDL handles all species’ pathogen concerns, but Schwartz says swine cases make up about 80% of the workload.

“I’ve never been more excited about this institution as I am today, and that is due in large part to a transition that occurred under previous Dean Thompson for emphasizing production animal medicine, bringing in 35 new faculty, new courses, active recruiting, building the diagnostic lab,” he says. He also credits Thompson with recognizing the talents of Pat Halbur to place him in charge of the food animal program and the talents of Rodger Main. “These people are amazing; creating the environment where you can do a lot of things and create the critical mass of people and resources where you can actually accomplish something.”

As technology has encroached on the swine production side, it has also crept into diagnostic labs. “On the surveillance side, testing and reporting the results have seen a tremendous growth, really entrepreneurial stuff with molecular diagnostics, PCR [polymerase chain reaction] sequencing, next-generation sequencing. Swine production is technology-driven, whatever is new they will take a look and throw away what’s not useful, but they keep and improve what’s useful. So molecular diagnostics has proven to be quite useful here.”

Better testing and better equipment has aided Schwartz and his colleagues to benefit the swine industry by being able to quickly diagnose, and report back the findings of such diagnosis, even when the news isn’t good.

One such case was when samples were submitted and Schwartz recognized the first cases of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus in 2013. “PED was an ‘oh, sh*!’ moment,” Schwartz says. “Yea, the individual says, ‘Wow, I get to study something I’ve never studied before,’ but for the industry what’s the impact of this.”


The mailroom of the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory bustles with activity every morning, as cases are processed and distributed for further testing. More than 75,000 cases are submitted annually, with over 1.5 million diagnostic tests performed. That caseload has doubled in the last five years, and there is a push to get a new VDL built on the Ames campus.

Those first samples of what would be determined as PEDV “came in over the weekend. Monday morning I’m looking at these guts thinking ‘this is TGE, it’s gotta be.’ So I test for TGE, and it comes back negative. A veterinarian calls in: ‘This sure looks like TGE.’ By Thursday we knew this could be serious.”

An ISU colleague had done some PCR over the weekend, and other samples has been sent out to other labs. “Then we hear it’s been breaking in multiples places. By Thursday and Friday it was breaking in Oklahoma, Colorado, Indiana; we kind of knew in the first seven days what it was.”

Schwartz defends the response in the wake of the PEDV break. “We knew what it was relatively quick, we just didn’t know as rapidly how to prevent it from spreading,” he says. “No one knew the part that feed could play in transfer. … I didn’t think the diagnostic response was too bad.”

What Schwartz doesn’t defend is the complacency of behalf of producers reacting to PEDV. “As with any disease, it’s human nature to be in denial until you get it,” he says. “You have to build the momentum, until enough people have experienced it, and enough people with connections have experienced it, so now it becomes an issue.”

He saw the same thing happen with circovirus. “There was a five-year lag before it was taken seriously, but I credit Pat Halbur with getting someone to work on a vaccine so we only had a relatively short window of devastating losses in 2005-06,” he says.

To be taken seriously with a disease diagnosis, Schwartz admits there’s a fine line between “not acting quickly enough and crying wolf too often. … you are going to have false alarms on the national level, but a diagnosis will have meaning to individual barns and individual producers.”

That gets back to putting a face and a name with each case that crosses Schwartz’s desk.

From a path of uncertainty
Schwartz grew up on a farm in Linn County, Iowa, and he had an interest in agriculture and a desire to learn, but was not quite certain what he wanted to do with his life. “My brother went to Iowa State, so I thought that I’d go to Iowa State. … when I was a freshman, Kent State happened, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.”

While he was in school, he worked at the I-35 Skelly “bumping” tires and pumping diesel, and worked part time during the day in the vet school in the department of pathology. “That’s where I got to meet great mentors Hank Harris and Bob Glock. I was really enjoying all of this, and I thought ‘how can I stick around to enjoy this more,’ and I applied to vet school.”

After graduation, he took a job in Ken Wilcke’s veterinary clinic in Walcott, Iowa. “He was a fantastic mentor, a fantastic general practitioner,” Schwartz says. Within six months, Schwartz was a partner with Wilcke.

After about four years at the clinic, Glock gave Schwartz a call about the possibility of coming to work with him in a feedyard practice in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The lure of working for his former mentor prevailed, and Schwartz spent a couple of years in feedyard practice.

Schwartz credits Glock for modeling a positive approach to dealing with people, but working with him in feedyard practice showed him the contrast between that work and the time he spent with Wilcke in Walcott. “My time at Walcott really caused me to internalize the pride of ownership of a family farmer,” he says. “The feedyard practice didn’t really provide that; it was more zeros and more about the numbers, and less about the people and the critters.”

He decided to return to his home state to start a small practice in Alburnett, Iowa. “That practice grew pretty well, and I actually ended up with a partner/wife. We built it into something to sell.”

In addition to growing a practice, Kent and Audrey also built a family. Trevor is a veterinarian in Rockwell City with Suidae Health and Production; Regan works in economics and finance with Wells Fargo in North Carolina; Taylor is a junior studying pharmacy at Drake University; Andrea is a senior at Cedarville University in Ohio, and applying to veterinary school; and Angela is a high school senior at Gilbert.

The desire to know more, or better understand, lured him back to academia. “In 1969 we could put somebody on the moon, so I figured certainly somebody will know why this animal died, so there was that naïveté because there are no absolutes in biology.”

He admits that his time in practice generated his empathy for the producers who have submitted the samples to be tested for what ails their herd. He sees his work at the VDL as a nice balance between the pursuit of continual learning and serving and “feeling like you’re a value to someone or something.”

There again is that striving to serve. Get Schwartz talking about his dad, John (“Jack”), and it doesn’t take long for him to use the phrase “heart of a servant.” He’s talking about his father, but he could also be talking into a mirror.

Editor’s note: John Schwartz passed away April 28, after this article was written and published in the May issue of National Hog Farmer. He was 96.

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senior content specialist, National Hog Farmer

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