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A love for science lured this farm boy to practice swine medicine, but his faith, family and the people of the swine industry kept him grounded in the career for nearly 40 years.
May 22, 2018
Nothing was going to stop pork master Tom Gillespie from being a veterinarian. From an early age, growing up on a grain and hog farm in north-central Indiana, he just knew this was his dream career.
A love for science lured this farm boy to practice swine medicine, but his faith, family and the people of the swine industry kept him grounded in the career for nearly 40 years. “I get really pumped about taking the science as we understand it and applying it to the farm. This requires a lot of training with the farm’s staff to see how good they can be,” says Gillespie, with passion in his voice.
Over the years, his passion for swine medicine has become more intense as the pork industry continued to confront challenge after challenge.
“Since today’s challenges are so complex, you are a bit of a detective — but you must think like an epidemiologist,” explains Gillespie. “There are a lot of uncomfortable situations, because these pathogens continue to surprise us.”
Still, the thrill of discovering a solution is exactly what drives Gillespie. As the years go on, Gillespie, like his fellow swine veterinarians, chips away at mysteries in the barn and assists hog farmers in cracking current management issues. Some animal health mysteries require many minds to solve, while other issues involve coaching the farm team on adjusting management practices to improve performance.
The fact that no two days are alike is one of his favorite things about being a swine veterinarian.
“For me, it is the people factor, the disease factor and population dynamics — all three come together,” Gillespie says with a smile. “You really get energetic when people that come to work, engage in their jobs and they desire to do better. So, those are the people you can work with and apply some of the new science, new technology and really make a difference.”
Hog farmers are always open to improving, learning and embracing new technology, Gillespie says — a quality admires about the industry.
Over the years, swine veterinarians have worn different hats, from nutritionist to risk management consultant.
Personal growth opportunities
After completing his doctor of veterinarian medicine degree from Purdue University, Gillespie and his wife, Denise, moved to western Illinois to join a general practice. Throughout veterinary school, he thought working on all large animals was his preference. But after declawing a bear and conquering a few other strange creatures, his passion for pigs led him back to Indiana, mentor Kirk Clark, DVM, and a focus on pigs.
Gillespie joined a general practice with Clark, eventually allowing him to focus on one species. Though Clark moved on to pursue a Ph.D. under Allen D. Leman and then to a faculty position at Purdue University, the guidance and the relationship continued.
In 1991, Gillespie started his swine-only practice in Rensselaer, Ind., with his wife by his side managing the office. The size of the hog farms varies from 300 to 5,000 sows.
Along with working with Indiana pig farmers, he received an opportunity through Boehringer Ingelheim to educate Danish producers in 1997, opening the door to working with some of the largest hog farmers in the world. Gillespie recently returned from a trip to Asia training a production staff and its veterinarians in developing better replacement gilts.
While local producers question his international adventures, Gillespie understands the pork business is a global affair. Working in some of the most remote rural areas in Asia and Europe opened his eyes and changed his perspective.
His work in the United States overflows to the international side, and his experience across the globe has taught him to look at things differently back in the States. It doesn’t matter if you raise pigs in the United States or the Philippines, the goal is the same — to produce pounds of pork efficiently, explains Gillespie.
Working in the barns, he also spends time with researchers helping to keep the swine industry moving forward. For instance, an investigation into properly managing the body condition of sows resulted in work on conditioning the sow to eat properly in the farrowing crate, so she would raise heavier pigs. The push to grow pigs faster creates piglets that outgrow their iron injections by 14 days. “We have pigs growing that fast today. It has been an eye-opener for me,” he notes.
An ongoing research project on hemoglobin is an example of one area he lends some brain power to, aiding pork producers in weaning even bigger pigs.
Gillespie says it is a full-time job keeping up with current information for the hog industry. All swine veterinarians and pork producers worldwide need training and mentors to guide them, he says.
He credits his involvement with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians as a building block in his career. The organization not only challenges people to improve their leadership skills, but also creates an environment to bring veterinarians and allied business members together to solve some of the biggest problems. Circovirus was the big problem facing the industry during Gillespie’s presidency. A special meeting for the AASV members was called during the annual meeting to establish the name, PCVAD (porcine circovirus associated disease) and create the case definition of the syndrome.
Other examples are sow mortality and retention of gilts. Young sows leaving the herd too soon is a real issue. The issue was not talked about publicly until after a small group gathered in the hallway at the AASV annual meeting three years ago and determined there was a problem. AASV is a venue to access knowledge and work collaboratively on the largest problems for the industry.
Gillespie credits AASV for pushing him to grow as a leader. He served as AASV president in 2005 and 2006 after holding different leadership roles in the organization. The whole process was a valuable experience for him.
As a swine veterinarian, Tom Gillespie channels his inner detective to solve pig farmers’ health problems.
Throughout his career, his role on the farm has evolved from veterinarian to member of the farm team. The relationship with his clients is its own reward, he says The Gillespies have stood strong with their clients through some of the toughest financial and animal health years, guiding and supporting them beyond simply handing over a prescription.
Evolving with the pork industry, the role of veterinarian has also shifted. The 1980s were taxing for all involved in the hog industry, and suddenly veterinarians found themselves coaching in all facets of the swine business. “In the ’80s, you wore so many hats. You worked with their banker. There were so many different aspects they needed to be helped with at that time,” Gillespie recalls.
Still, healthy pigs just grow better, and producers need that assistance to reduce or eliminate costly diseases. The elimination process can be expensive, but it also yields a solid return on investment. It takes a trusted relationship between veterinarian and farm team to close a herd and focus on eliminating a disease.
While porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome still is the leading disease challenge, an effort to eliminate mycoplasma is also a priority for Gillespie. He says, “Quite frankly, the elimination of PRRS and mycoplasmas in herds is separating us [U.S. hog producers] from other parts of the world, because a healthy pig grows better. They are just more efficient.”
In the sow unit, the name of the game is selling more pigs, but the real money is in the grow-finish barns, Gillespie stresses.
“What happens when we have disease is, pigs don’t eat. So, the average daily gain goes down. One of the biggest costs is mortality. Another large cost is days to market,” he says. “A sick pig increases the days to market. Look at what circovirus did to us. So, the cost of the disease is what motivates us to eliminate pathogens, which starts with the sow units.”
The real issue is how to keep the sow unit clean, he explains further. A complete understanding of transmission is needed, given the large number of feed ingredients imported into the U.S. and the 1 million hogs moved in the country on any given day. Managing risk on the farm is a priority on the farm. For the producer, Gillespie breaks this into three buckets: biocontainment, bio-exclusion and biomanagement. The role of the swine veterinarian is biomanagement, which means controlling or eliminating internal and external risks.
He says it comes down to figuring out how these pathogens transmit — animal, trucks or people, to name a few. While Gillespie is certain we may never know 100%, the industry still needs to have a better understanding of transmission. He doesn’t believe people are the biggest risk, but individuals do make mistakes. Routine monitoring — especially using process-day fluids, a new technique of monitoring — can lend a hand to the detective work.
For Gillespie, communication is one of the major challenges of the job. The days are filled with people and pigs. No matter the trials of the day, it is essential to remember you are working with people with varying knowledge, personalities and responsibilities on the farm. When Gillespie started his practice, all the decision-makers were in the barn at once. Today, the conversations in the barn are about recognizing, encouraging, educating and motivating workers. And then you turn around and have a discussion by phone, email or text with production managers or owners, presenting information and data. “Getting everyone on the same page when the waters are pretty rough is one of the biggest challenges,” he explains.
With social media and all the electronic devices around, clients expect an immediate response. For animal health issues, it is all about timing. So, veterinarians are going to have to use technology to allow them to be in more than one place at once.
Foundation of faith and family
Like the roller coaster of pig farming, being a swine veterinarian is demanding and stressful along with being rewarding. Gillespie says his family and faith have carried him through. His wife and three kids — Kevin, Matthew and Kendra — gave tremendous support through those darkest days.
The emotional side of farming can take a toll on the strongest person. In the dark days of pig farming, when depression had taken over a person’s judgment, it was hard to witness a strong farmer at his weakest moment and pigs not being fed. As a veterinarian, Gillespie worked through what needed to be done for the pigs, but it wasn’t as easy to fix the spirit of the farmer. As hardship plagues an industry, it is difficult not to absorb these emotions and carry them with you. He says his family also helped him work through those miserable days.
Long hours, tough days and demanding situations can generate stress, but Gillespie says his walk in faith has always helped him to get through. While he forced himself to take time off, his family would accuse him of not truly unplugging.
In June, Gillespie will retire from his practice, leaving time for his family — including six grandchildren and one soon to arrive. The Pipestone System will take care of his local clients. He will remain active in the swine industry but be more selective in his projects. He is also continuing his international trips, training and inspiring others, along with participating in research projects to find solutions for pig farmers.
Words of wisdom to industry
Labor is an issue in the pig business. Some producers in certain geographic areas struggle more than others with finding good workers. However, Gillespie says, overall, America’s pig farmers need to do a better job exposing students from grade school to high school to the industry, encouraging them to eat pork but also inspiring some to consider pig farming as a genuine career.
There is a mindset change in America today, he says. A four-year degree is not necessarily as popular as years past. One thing that hasn’t changed is that people are drawn to a pig career because they like working with animals. So, U.S. hog farmers need to attract, pay them fairly and work to retain employees, notes Gillespie.
He says not to forget about the next generation. Gillespie, through the years, has worked with many interns and young veterinarians in his practice. It is wise to invest in younger professionals with a passion for pigs. In his practice, he developed a team approach and has established an environment that respects their knowledge and allows them to grow. “We had some outstanding young veterinarians working with me. They pushed me,” he says.
The practical, hands-on learning is needed for young veterinarians. During medical school, experience of working in the barns is often not provided. Applying the science to the hog operation means understanding why pig caretakers perform certain tasks in the barn. Since today’s veterinarian students most often do not come from livestock farms, he recommends that young students, before beginning year-round learning, work in the hog barn. There is some benefit in working as a pig caretaker for a summer. They need to know what it is like to power-wash an entire barn, the normal daily routine activities and to pick up the language. The experience will bring their knowledge full circle, make them better communicators and relatable to clients, he explains.
Still, no matter if you are a hog producer or veterinarian, Gillespie says we must slow ourselves down and explain more. Many individuals managing a barn today or supervising others were programmed just to put their heads down and work until the job is done. He stresses that this requires thinking outside the box. It is essential to understand that the younger generation grew up differently, with a diverse set of values. So, the approach to training and education needs to be adjusted. “We need to be more open with them and reward them,” stresses Gillespie.
Inspiring young minds to continue pursuing science and unravel some of the biggest swine medicine puzzles is a passion he will continue after his retirement. No matter if he is speaking with young swine veterinarians here in the U.S. or internationally, the advice is the same.
Don’t be afraid: Jump outside of your comfort zone. Try a new procedure. If something is not working, then figure out why.
Be open: It is crucial to be honest, approachable, friendly, tolerant and authentic.
Be bold: You need confidence in yourself, your knowledge and ability. If you see something wrong, you must firmly tell your clients the problems and recommend the next step.
Practice life-long learning: Challenge yourself to always learn something new every day. To be an effective member of the farm team, you need to understand many aspects of real pig farming outside of swine medicine, such as ventilation or nutrition. If you do not know something, then do not be too proud to call in an expert.
Set goals: Write down your goals and divide them up into the short and the long term.
“My encouragement to young veterinarians is, don’t be afraid. Just step out with some confidence, but don’t cut the limb behind you by making predictions,” summarizes Gillespie.
Gillespie encourages seasoned veterinarians to mentor others. The worst thing for a young veterinarian is to go to the farm and make a large mistake. In the early years, they want someone watching over them and backing them up, he says. All young veterinarians need someone they can pull in when in a difficult situation or second-guessing themselves; it reduces their chances to fail.
Master of the Pork Industry
When you ask Gillespie what being named a Master of the Pork Industry means to him, he gets a little choked up. It was as meaningful as being named AASV swine practitioner of the year in 2010. “I am humbled by the recognition of people thinking you have elevated your professional to that point.
“Most don’t get up every morning looking backward. We are always looking forward. You don’t ever think about what you accomplished,” he says reflectively. “It is about service. It is about meeting the clients’ needs.”
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