Federal program helps Midwest veterinarian keep poultry happy, healthy

By: Valerie Goddard, staff assistant, Governmental Relations Division

DrDeirdreJohnsonVMLRPA happy bird is a healthy bird, and learning how to make birds happy is exactly what poultry veterinarian Deirdre Johnson aims to do each day. She is one of 286 veterinarians participating in a federal program that places veterinarians in shortage areas around the country in exchange for student loan repayment.

Johnson knew from a young age that she wanted to be a veterinarian and, after working for a poultry company, she pursued her dreams and went to Virginia Tech to become a poultry veterinarian. Upon graduation, she was hired by the only broiler company in the upper Midwest where her boss told her of the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP).

The VMLRP is a competitive grant program that repays up to $75,000 toward qualified educational loans for eligible veterinarians who sign contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to practice in one of the agency’s designated veterinary shortage areas. Luckily for Johnson, she was working in an area that was in desperate need for a poultry veterinarian.

She knew she could fulfill the requirement of spending 80 percent of her time serving poultry, so she applied to the program and was awarded a three-year contract starting in 2012.

Johnson started her work in St. Cloud, Minn., in January of 2010. At first, her job was challenging since there had not been a trained poultry veterinarian immediately before she came on board, but Johnson quickly learned the ropes and said that the job allowed her more independence than many veterinarians find early in their careers.

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“In most companies, there will be multiple veterinarians already on staff and when you are hired for your first job, you will work under the supervision of another veterinarian,” Johnson said. “But I came here without guidance, and I think it’s been wonderful because I’ve been able to use my creativity to develop a lot of programs. I’ve learned so much because I have to be engaged in everything.”

One program Johnson is currently working on involves monitoring and understanding the movement of the birds in the barns.

“Birds are so different than humans. A lot of the standards being set for the birds are what a human would want and they’re actually not right for the bird. For example, free range birds with access to the outside are exposed to parasites and diseases that we are able to prevent by housing them indoors,” Johnson said. “So it’s about educating the public about what would be best for the birds in the barn.”

Johnson enjoys the disease and epidemiology aspects of dealing with large populations of birds. Although food safety and biosecurity are important, she says her “niche” at the company has been looking out for the welfare of the animals in her care.

“Something that I’ve really become involved in is animal welfare, making really strong programs that support the birds,” Johnson said. “It’s very important to me because I love what I do. I’m blessed because I work for a small enough company and a progressive company that I can push programs like this forward.”

Among Johnson’s many responsibilities is working with farmers to solve disease issues and maximize comfort for the birds in the barns. She also spends time in the hatchery doing quality-control checks to make sure the chicks are born healthy and with the breeder chickens, where she uses behavior to monitor the health of the birds.

“You have to look at the overall behavior, which really tells you how that population is doing health-wise,” Johnson said. “Basically, behaving in the way that makes them happy is healthy. A healthy bird is going to behave well.”

Johnson encourages veterinary students to explore different options before deciding on a career path, especially if they are uncertain of the direction they want their career to take.

“Definitely look at your options. If you love small animal medicine, that’s great, but if you don’t really know what you want to do, there are so many opportunities for veterinarians out there and so many things you can go into. Make sure you keep your eyes open and don’t be scared to apply and commit to programs like the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program,” she said.

Though there are times when it is difficult for Johnson to be away from her family on the East Coast, she says the VMLRP has helped her become ingrained in her company.

“This program keeps me focused on my work and has helped me really become part of this company.”

Learn more about the legislation that helps farmers and ranchers get the veterinary care their animals need.

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