Growing up in tiny Carlock, IL, just west of Bloomington-Normal, Jim Lowe worked hard to grasp onto what limited agricultural roots he had. Along with his dad, mom and younger brother, Jim lived on an acreage that afforded him the opportunity to fully participate in 4-H and FFA activities throughout his childhood.
Lowe’s father taught vocational agriculture and his mother, mainly a stay-at-home mom, also taught business courses.
He cultivated projects in hogs and row crops. To add diversity, he played the trombone in marching band throughout high school into college.
After graduating from Normal Community High School, he attended the University of Illinois to pursue a bachelors of science degree in agricultural studies. His passion was to find a way to get back to the farm.
“I knew that I wanted to go to veterinary school since I was an undergraduate. It was pretty clear to me that if I wanted to get back to the farm, it would not be back to the family farm because it wasn’t nearly large enough,” Lowe recalls.
Going to veterinary school made the option of returning to the farm more realistic. “I am not the accidental veterinarian, but I am kind of the pig farmer who ended up being a veterinarian,” he quips.
All of Lowe’s degrees have come from the University of Illinois — a second bachelors degree in veterinary science in 1992, a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) in 1994, a certificate in swine health management in 2000 as part of the Executive Veterinary Program, and a masters of science degree in veterinary pathobiology (epidemiology and immunology) in 2004.
After getting his DVM degree, he started his professional career at Alpha, IL, working at Vet Care Associates for Randy Larson, DVM and Pat Fairbrother, DVM. He lived at Altona, IL, next to well-known swine veterinarian Ralph Vinson. All three served as mentors to the young Lowe. The trio helped kick-start his career and gave him the confidence to persevere.
It was not the best of times to begin a career in swine medicine, as 1994 saw a spate of low hog prices, followed by record-high $5 corn prices in 1995.
Vinson told the young Lowe that those types of events only occurred once about every 20 years, so he thought it was good to get it out of the way early in his career. But Lowe has chided Vinson for being wrong, as events in 1998-1999 brought some of the lowest hog prices in history and reflected the era of unpredictable volatility that persists today in all facets of agriculture.
In those three years of practice, Lowe dabbled in swine, cattle, sheep, small animal and horse medicine — all providing true lessons in problem solving.
From there he moved southwest to the well-known Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service, Ltd. and prospered under the wing of owner Joe Connor, DVM. That same year, 1997, he took on a client just starting a growth spurt, The Maschhoffs at Carlyle, IL, and prospered from the knowledge of brothers Ken and Dave, who ran the operation, and father Wayne, who ran the feedmill.
“There are two things in life that make you successful,” Lowe relates. “One is that you have the right boss (Connor) and the people to get you started on the right track, and two is that you are fortunate enough to run across the right clients (The Maschhoffs) who grow and have the right approach to being successful.”
In 10 short years, the Maschhoffs went from a small home office and several thousand sows to a ultra-modern office complex, 200,000 sows and a large network of contract growers. Lowe worked on The Maschhoff’s staff as director of Health and Production Services from 2003 to 2007, then returned to private practice, but continued to work with the firm.
Those resources, along with pork producers Gary Main and Gary Holt from central Illinois, provided the training and skill sets Lowe uses today in his veterinary medicine practice and to mentor students as a clinical instructor at the University of Illinois.
“I’ve always said the best thing that I ever did was to go do country practice for three years. I think I really learned how to be a veterinarian.
“I tell students, ‘at some point you are going to walk out there and it is you and a cow or a pig and a pickup truck, and you realize you’ve got to fix that problem on the farm with whatever is in that truck’,” Lowe points out.
“Completing that challenge is part of building critical problem-solving skills. It’s taking limited resources that you possess as a rookie veterinarian and personally finding the mental and physical wherewithal to complete the task and help that farmer be successful,” he emphasizes.
University of Illinois graduate program advisors Larry Firkins, Tony Goldberg and Frederico Zuckermann provided academic counseling “to help me grow and help me think better,” Lowe says.
Looking back to his start in veterinary medicine 18 years ago, Lowe realizes pork producers have a lot of knowledge to share. “My approach then was to teach them, because I was pretty sure I was smarter than they were. But, as I got older, I started to recognize that maybe they were the smart ones. At some point, if you can just help them change a little bit, they will do a little bit better and you can help them achieve progress,” says the humble 43-year-old practitioner.
Swine Health Plans
That lesson has been a really powerful tool for Lowe, leading him to proclaim: “If you are going to be successful in this business, it takes two days of thinking and 363 days of doing. It’s true of swine health. We spend too much time thinking and rethinking and redoing instead of just picking a plan and sticking with it.”
Lowe says the truth is, the bugs are a lot more creative than we are. The trick is to be patient enough to understand that animal health changes come at a very slow pace. In other words, take the time to formulate a plan that is measurable and doable, then give it time to work, he says.
Things seemed to move slowly when producers and their veterinarians were devising plans to deal with pseudorabies (PRV), at the time when Lowe first ventured out as a swine veterinarian in the mid-90s.
“We thought it was miserable at the time, but the vaccine was highly efficacious and all you had to do was figure out how to get the vaccine into the pig. As long as the herd was vaccinated, you didn’t have to do any of this other stuff like worry much about biosecurity, so it was a wonderful virus in a lot of respects,” he observes.
PRV vaccination was a unique situation in which the industry was able to create a differential vaccine that basically produced sterilizing immunity and the virus didn’t change.
“That was probably the biggest home run success story of blending science and veterinary medicine together,” Lowe says, adding that it may never be duplicated. “I was fortunate to get in on the PRV control program because of the kind of perspective that it gives you.”
In contrast, swine influenza virus (SIV) and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) have turned out to be the biggest swine disease challenges since PRV was defeated.
“The return of swine dysentery or similar bacterial problems we can fix, but SIV and PRRS can make you look like an idiot on a regular basis,” Lowe says with a quick grin.
PRRS in particular has created an immense amount of frustration with clients as management ramps up only to fail to clear away the disease. “We know how to eliminate this virus from individual herds at a rapid pace, which we were also good at with PRV,” he notes. But despite very smart people spending millions of dollars to work on the problem, the virus has continued to outsmart attempts to keep the disease out of swine herds.
“PRRS is like Darwin on steroids: the industry makes one counterpunch to the disease and it responds with three left jabs,” Lowe states.
As an example, he points to the 30-week herd closure plans that worked really well for years to eliminate the virus, then all of a sudden they didn’t work quite so well. Now it takes 40-week or 50-week herd closures to get the job done. “The viruses that survive herd closure now have a competitive advantage as they circulate back into the negative pig population,” he says.
“On a scale of diseases, we forget that PRRS has not been around all that long in terms of the eons of existence of some diseases. It probably has been around longer than we think, though, and adapted to become pathogenic at some point.”
In that regard, Lowe doesn’t fear the spread of highly pathogenic strains of PRRS reported to exist in China as much as he does the U.S. swine industry creating some different form of the disease on its own.
“There had to be conditions in China that allowed a really pathogenic strain of PRRS to be successful in that ecosystem. There is nothing to say that we won’t create conditions here for that to occur, because we don’t understand at a base level what conditions promote and select for virulence,” he says.
Lowe points out that some critics say perhaps producers should live with PRRS, as they said should be done with PRV, hog cholera and swine brucellosis before those diseases were eradicated from the domestic U.S. swine herd.
If it weren’t for the pork export market, which now accounts for about 27% of U.S. hog production, and our ability to compete on a global scale, perhaps we could live with PRRS, he suggests.
And the United States certainly has some costs that its foreign competitors, such as eastern Europe and South America, don’t have with respect to labor and regulatory issues.
But the United States also is blessed with some favorable positions. “We have some huge advantages in production efficiencies in terms of infrastructure and grain production. But to compete, we probably can’t afford to have a disease drag of $2-6/head from PRRS. That may not make us competitive on the world stage,” Lowe says.
He is hopeful that the regional PRRS projects will supply the technology and information that is needed to improve health on a larger scale and drive profitability.
Multi-site systems fixed the problems they were designed to fix, including atrophic rhinitis, Pasteurella multocida, Mycoplasma pneumonia and swine dysentery — all slow-moving bacterial diseases. “These were brilliant advances and were the first time that we said we can manipulate production systems to manage disease without any other intervention,” Lowe says. “It worked so good that we took it for granted.”
Those advances were truly fantastic and have caused younger clinicians and producers to think that if this technology, which is based to a large degree on all-in, all-out (AIAO) production, will work on one set of diseases, the same technology will be successful on other diseases.
“It is probably true that AIAO technology will keep down the secondary diseases, but I think if we are going to make major headway on one of these epidemic viral diseases, we are really going to have to make that next leap forward in management flow models,” Lowe says. PRRS is endemic in U.S. swine herds, but epidemic within local herds or in small populations, and those herds shift from negative to positive and produce disease outbreaks.
Making that next leap forward in PRRS control is going to take a radical change in thinking, some sort of animal health breakthrough. “It may end up that elimination won’t be our goal. It could come down to how can we cultivate viruses that are not pathogenic,” he offers.
At the end of the day, PRRS has become another major risk to an operation, just like corn price risk and hog price risk. All of those risks require much higher capitalization to survive, Lowe surmises.
“PRRS may be the disease that we cannot defeat, but we need a different disease model so that we can possibly live with it,” he declares.
Value of Learning
The old axiom is — work hard and you will succeed. But advice from lots of people that has stuck with Lowe goes one step further. Never miss a chance to learn something, because you will always be better if you just learn one more thing.
As a clinical instructor at the University of Illinois, he got involved in teaching because he wanted to share with veterinary students how to think systematically as problem solvers and critical thinkers.
Whether it is beef cows, dairy cows or pigs, veterinary students are taught production medicine. What he teaches fourth-year veterinary students is building basic skill sets that really focus on decision-making and becoming knowledgeable in heath and production, but also in areas like business and human resource management.
“This is very foundational stuff that I was never taught. Instead of ‘how do I get this blood sample out of this pig,’ it’s, ‘how do I interact with this client and what do I have to know when I am on this farm?’” Lowe explains.
“Our whole teaching program is really focused on how to jumpstart students, expose them to the core skills and give them a broad set of perspectives,” he says. He initiated the program in 2009.
Lowe says providing a more well-rounded education is important to incoming swine veterinarians. They need to have a variety of skills to match the needs of modern hog farms that are much more sophisticated and have grown much larger as they seek to compete.
Veterinary students are very smart, but in this highly technological world that we live in, they also need to be persuasive communicators, he notes.
That leads Lowe to his proudest accomplishment: “If at the end of the day you can see the light in somebody’s eyes that you really got through to them, and you know that they respect you, then you know the guys at the barn level are going to fix that problem — and that is what you are really most proud of.”
He offers three rules to success: work hard, be honest and have fun. “Those rules have worked for me and I think they can make others successful, too,” he attests.
In the swine industry, challenges to that recipe for success may be dampened by regulatory efforts, particularly in the areas of antibiotics and sow housing. Those challenges make it incumbent upon the swine industry to develop innovations in health management and address aging facilities to continue to provide what’s best for the pig, says Lowe, who started his own consulting business in 2012.