In 34 years as Extension swine veterinarian at Iowa State University (ISU), James McKean's job title has remained the same, while his day-to-day work and the industry he serves has changed immensely.
One thing remains foremost and unwavering — his support and respect for the pork producers and veterinarians in the state of Iowa.
His undying endorsement for the Iowa pork industry would make you think that the well-spoken educator must be an Iowan by birth.
Not so. McKean was actually born in New York City, but lived virtually all of his youth in various cities in central Illinois. The family didn't raise pigs, but his Dad was a hog buyer and developed the feeder pig business for Interstate Producers Livestock Association, which still coordinates pig sales today.
Young Jim got plenty of pig exposure growing up, however, as a grandfather and an uncle farmed north of Peoria, IL, and raised pigs and dairy cattle.
Career Path Chosen Early
McKean says he knew at a fairly young age while helping his relatives with pigs and dairy cattle that he wanted to become a swine veterinarian. “I learned fairly quickly that standing on the side of the pen holding the pigs — while the veterinarian was standing on the other side of the fence vaccinating them — that there was more money and a lot less work on the other side of the fence.”
An early mentor who solidified those feelings was Roger Kuffel, DVM, who worked in mixed veterinary practice at Kewanee, IL, and did the dairy work at the farm.
“It was a good experience for me. I learned the value of knowledge and being able to treat animals, how to help them get better and improve their welfare — that was a really good start for me in veterinary medicine.”
After completing high school at Decatur, IL, he completed a bachelor's of veterinary science degree and received a doctor of veterinary medicine degree (DVM), both from the University of Illinois, in 1969 and 1970, respectively.
McKean says he probably would have gone on to a career in large animal veterinary medicine due to experiences with pigs and cattle growing up. But an accident as a sophomore in veterinary school changed all that. While working in a corn processing plant to earn money for college, his right leg became caught in a 24-in. horizontal feed auger. The leg had to be amputated.
After six weeks in the hospital and two weeks recuperating at home, he returned to college and finished his degree on time. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg the following spring.
From there, McKean went on to Michigan State University, where he earned a master's degree in veterinary pathology in 1973. His interest in diagnostic medicine led back to the University of Illinois and a mentor, Neil Becker, DVM, who served as an Extension swine veterinarian and doubled as a veterinary diagnostician.
McKean worked for the Michigan Farm Bureau as a technical services veterinarian, before deciding he wanted to work with pigs. He joined the staff of Iowa State University in 1974, where he remains today.
Dramatic Job Shift
There have been some dramatic changes in McKean's position over the years, which have served to keep the job interesting and intellectually challenging.
“When I first came to Ames, we (Extension staff) spent the winters doing anywhere from 50 to 90 county meetings. Palmer Holden (nutrition), Emmet Stevermer (production information) and I (veterinary medicine) would work with the county agents in the late summer and fall to plan the meetings. They would tell us what they wanted us to talk about,” he recalls.
In those days, winter meetings began just after Thanksgiving, when the crops were harvested, and ran through the middle of March.
It was strenuous work. McKean says the words of former Extension veterinarian John Herrick, who passed away in 2007, kept him focused. “John told me my job was not to know everything, but to know those people who might know, direct people to the right places and put linkages together, and that's something that I hope I have been able to do over the years.”
Large numbers of producers attended those winter meetings. It was a fairly homogenous group. Producers were farrow-to-finish, farrowed sows to produce feeder pigs or finished pigs. Most had from 20 to 200 sows and their herds suffered from the same problems, usually diarrhea or respiratory ailments.
Today, disease challenges are much more diverse and so are the producers attending the meetings, explains McKean. Iowa producers are very segmented: there are people who only farrow pigs, people who only raise nursery pigs (weaning to 50-60 lb.) and people who only finish pigs. Then there are all of the different contracting arrangements, he explains.
And while production in the state has stayed stable, producer numbers have shrunk, and with it the number and size of educational meetings. “There might be a meeting of just a half a dozen pork producers who raise multiple thousands of pigs, so you may be impacting the same number of pigs as you did when you had 100 meetings, but you are doing it in a much different setting,” he observes.
Hog Issues Change, Too
The scope of the educational material has naturally evolved as well, McKean points out. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, sulfamethazine and other antibiotic residues were a major industry concern addressed by McKean.
Also in the late 1980s, McKean was integrally involved in the birth and formation of a new facet of the industry - the pork quality assurance (PQA) program.
“That was a really successful educational program in that it encouraged people to change their attitude and think of themselves as more than just pig producers,” he says.
Almost simultaneously, further emphasis was placed on meat quality with the birth of carcass grading systems and more emphasis on meat-type hogs.
“The pork industry left behind the image that they were just producing a four-legged creature, and instead started to produce a product that would end up on someone's plate,” he relates.
That fueled support for the PQA program, which in turn led to his efforts to help develop the swine welfare assurance program and, of late, the PQA-Plus program.
Focus on Herd Health
In the early 1970s, when McKean began his career, hog cholera eradication was completed, followed by pseudorabies from the late 1980s until its completion in 2002-2003.
Both efforts were producer-driven and government-aided. The Iowa veterinarian helped producers understand the regulations at a crucial time, using his expertise as a veterinarian and a lawyer (he received his degree in 1988). That degree has also proved helpful in educational program development and problem-solving.
McKean stresses now, when pork industry revenues are extremely tight, producers should apply extra focus to herd health strategies to improve grow-finish efficiency and farm competitiveness. He suggests producers start by “taking some diseases off the table.”
Swine dysentery has seen a small resurgence, and Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia (APP) rears its head now and then. Test to make sure they are not on your farm, he recommends.
Then producers can think bigger and work on more serious disease issues like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). Along those lines, he strongly suggests formulating a comprehensive surveillance program to target swine pathogens for identification and eradication.
In the case of PRRS, producers and veterinarians know how to clean up a farm, but reinfection is a danger, partly because surveillance work is neglected.
That's especially critical in places like Iowa, because the state imports about 21 million pigs from other states and Canada, all with unknown status, since no testing or surveillance work is being performed.
Just as with the pseudorabies eradication effort, a PRRS plan must be producer-driven and government-aided.
Give Credit Where It's Due
McKean, also associate director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center, makes it perfectly clear that his veterinary career didn't blossom entirely on its own.
During the four years in the mid-1980s when he worked on his law degree, while still working full time at ISU, his wife, Ellen, took care of their four children. He says many times he and his children were studying together.
Likewise, she has helped over the years with swine veterinary research documentation, and also serves as a sounding board on consumer issues when McKean wants to know how consumers might react to pork quality projects. They have been married 39 years.
He credits Iowa pork producers, who have informed him with their insight, resilience and progressiveness. He says it is almost uncanny how they can figure out how something will work on their farms even before the research is completed.
In program development, producers always stress three critical elements for success — credibility, affordability and whether it is workable. He says PQA-Plus passes that test and will help lead producers into new food safety and welfare horizons that include assessments and auditing skills they will need to meet customer demands.
How to help producers, especially independent producers, will remain McKean's focus while staying flexible, listening and learning.
He figures if he can add to the strength of the industry, he will feel pretty good when he takes that final walk from his offices at Iowa State University.
— Joe Vansickle, Senior Editor