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Articles from 2000 In November

Splitting Heirs

Sperm-sexing technology will soon offer producers important choices for their AI program.

Today, systematic crossbreeding, artificial insemination (AI), heat synchronization and embryo transfer are routine livestock breeding practices that once seemed revolutionary. The next quantum leap - sex selection - is about to follow the same story line.

Semen products sorted by sex will soon be commercially available for extensive use by the U.S. beef cattle industry. As scientists fine-tune sex-sorting technology, the advantages of being able to pick the sex of a calf quickly come into focus.

For both seedstock and commercial beef cattle producers, sexed sperm will allow breeding replacement cattle to have heifers specifically designed for the breeding herd. Ranchers using AI will be able to breed for a higher percentage of male market calves from terminal sires.

These and other benefits are just around the corner for the U.S. beef industry. The technology is now being used in the United Kingdom (UK), where 600,000 male calves born each year in commercial dairies represent a tremendous financial burden.

In the UK, selected dairy cows are being bred with beef-type sexed semen to produce more commercially viable beef-cross male calves. Other dairy cows are bred with semen to produce female offspring for replacements.

This summer, XY Inc., Fort Collins, CO, joined with Cogent - a British cattle breeding cooperative - to make sexed sperm available in the UK. The sperm sexing process patented by USDA is licensed to XY, which is recognized as the world leader in the research, development and commercialization of techniques to pre-select the sex of non-human mammals.

"Sex-selected sperm will allow production of offspring of a desired sex, taking advantage of differences in value of males and females for specific markets," says reproductive physiologist John Schenk, manager of sperm processing and flow cytometry laboratories for XY.

Using a computerized cell-sorting machine called a MoFlo, XY technicians separate bovine sperm that carry the X chromosome and produce females from sperm that carry the Y chromosome and produce males. Females are then bred with the desired sperm using AI.

This sex-sorting technique should be available for commercial use in the U.S. in about two years, says Schenk. "We've shown this method of sorting bovine sperm by sex can finally be introduced into the commercial world," he says.

Impact On The Industry

George Seidel, Jr., a Colorado State University reproductive physiologist, has worked closely with XY to make sperm sorting a viable practice for both the dairy and beef industries.

"The efficacy of this practice has improved markedly over the past several years, and improvements continue to be made," says Seidel. "As happened with embryo transfer, success rates will stabilize as experience accumulates."

Since the mid 1990s, several hundred calves have been born from sperm sorted by sex - and hundreds more are on the way.

Due to the cost of sexing semen and AI, it's reasonable to assume, for now at least, only semen from superior and proven sires would be sexed, sorted and inseminated into heifers, says Ron Torell, University of Nevada Extension livestock specialist at Elko.

"For the registered producer especially, the use of sexed semen certainly makes a lot of sense," he says.

For example, producers could breed replacement heifers to have all heifers.

"We could essentially produce our replacements from our replacements," explains Torell. "We usually have less dystocia in first-calf heifers that have heifer calves."

The technology will allow commercial beef producers to breed their cows to terminal-cross sires resulting in calves that would perform more efficiently in the feedlot and on the rail.

"Down the line, we'll find more applications for sexed semen, especially in making better use of heterosis in crossbreeding programs," says Torell. "There's no question, once the process is perfected and the costs go down, it will have quite an impact on the cattle industry."

The cell-sorting technology used by XY now provides about 90% sexing accuracy. Current pregnancy rates using sexed semen are about 80% of what can be obtained through normal AI procedures.

While some sperm are damaged in the sorting process, the damage is relatively minor compared to that caused by semen freezing practices. New methods for freezing and handling sex-sorted semen, along with new AI techniques using fewer sperm, are being investigated, Seidel says.

Expanding The Process Since freshly collected semen is necessary for the sexing process to work well, commercial sorters will likely be placed at or near bull stud facilities. Estimated costs for sexing sperm in the U.S. will be about $50/dose initially - not counting the cost of the semen, predicts Seidel.

"But, once the process is streamlined to produce millions of doses per year for the cattle industry, the cost will probably be in the $20 per dose range," he says.

The advent of sexed semen will also open doors for the AI industry, says Willie Altenburg, beef program manager for Alta Genetics Inc.

"Sexed sperm would make AI more feasible, more practical and more affordable for the cattle business," explains Altenburg.

To date, the purebred and AI industries have found it necessary to expend a great deal of emphasis on calving ease traits for use on heifers. Sexed semen will allow for added attention on sire traits, which could effectively "up the bar" on growth and carcass traits, says Altenburg.

Depending on how widespread the technology becomes, it could ultimately bring enough breeding efficiency into both the dairy and beef industries that producers may find they don't need as many cows to produce the world's beef.

"Sexed sperm could potentially change what type of genetics a dairy cow is exposed to and make every other dairy cow a beef producer," says Altenburg. "It certainly has the potential to change the face of the cattle breeding business."

Sexed sperm has also been used to produce offspring in five other mammalian species - humans, horses, swine, sheep and rabbits.

"It appears that the process will work for nearly all mammals," explains Seidel. "A major constraint with horses and pigs is that many more sperm are required to obtain acceptable pregnancy rates than with cattle."

The technology also may prove to be useful in propagating endangered species and conserving rare genetic material.

Interest in sperm sexing technology is expanding geographically as well. XY is working with Goyaike S.A., a leading Argentine cattle breeding firm, and two cattle breeding companies in Japan. Each has entered into research agreements with XY and secured rights to commercialize the sperm-sorting technology in their respective countries.

Schenk warns, however, that using flow-sorted sperm to produce sex-selected offspring is not a panacea for all applications or cattle producers. Nor is it a process that lends itself to anything but well-managed herds and the best-trained breeding technicians.

"Attention to detail will be mandatory," he advises. "And, producing and marketing flow-sorted sperm will require considerable investments in time and money. There's every sign, though, that this technology truly offers a world breakthrough in animal breeding."

The sex of offspring in mammals is determined by either the X- (female) or Y- (male) chromosome-bearing sperm. Because more DNA is contained within the X-chromosome of bovine sperm, live sperm can be separated by sex using a specialized cell-sorting technique developed by USDA reproductive physiologist Larry Johnson, Beltsville, MD.

During sex sorting, a fine stream of sperm is stained with a DNA-specific dye. The X-chromosome-bearing sperm containing more DNA bind more dye than Y-chromosome-bearing sperm and thus glow brighter when exposed to laser light.

Properly positioned detectors on the sperm sorter quantify and discriminate between the X and Y brightness differences emitted from the DNA and transfer that information to a computer for processing.

As sperm flow through the sorter, a vibrating crystal breaks the stream into small droplets (Figure 1). A positive or negative electrical charge is assigned to droplets according to the sperm's brightness. Droplets then pass an electric field where the respective droplets are deflected away from each other depending on their charge.

Streams of droplets containing selected sperm are collected into a test tube for further processing.

Only live, membrane-intact sperm are sorted; dead sperm and sperm with abnormal chromosome content are removed from the sperm population during sorting - a side-benefit of cell sorting. Presently about 10 million sperm of each sex can be sorted/hour. This is roughly the typical semen dose for AI. Researchers understand that the procedure must be sped up considerably for commercial use.

The cell sorters, which currently cost $280,000, are built by Cytomation Inc., Fort Collins, CO. XY Inc. has exclusive rights to the patent for sexing sperm through flow cytometry in non-human mammals. They intend to license this technique to bull studs and livestock genetics companies with royalties being paid to the U.S. government and the Colorado State University Foundation.

The equipment cost is expected to decline as sperm sorters are simplified and mass-produced. XY Inc. would like to have at least one cell sorter for commercial use in the U.S. by early 2001.

The genetics of fertility part 1 - heifer pregnancy

We all know that fertility has a big impact on the bottom line. It directly affects the number of calves we have to sell each year. Beyond that, it actually changes the composition of our herd.

In most cases, we cull or sell open females. Thus, lower herd fertility forces us to keep or buy more replacement females. These young replacement females cost more to maintain. They re-breed at lower percentages, and they produce lighter calves. Because of these effects, herds with high replacement rates and low fertility are less profitable.

When we think of things that affect fertility, we don't usually think about genetics, however. First, we probably think about nutrition, cow body condition and perhaps diseases that affect fertility. The surprising reality is that genetics have a large effect on fertility.

But, when we talk about the genetics of fertility, we have to break it down into heifer pregnancy and cow pregnancy. This column deals with heifer pregnancy while next month's article deals with cow pregnancy.

Heifer Pregnancy Heifer pregnancy is the probability (or odds) that a heifer will breed as a yearling. This has a lot to do with her age at puberty (whether she is cycling yet), her weight and her inherent ability to become and stay pregnant.

Most operations feed heifers up to a level where they will achieve a certain pregnancy goal. If you're targeting 90% pregnant, then you learn that your heifers must reach a certain age and body weight to consistently get this type of result. Where do genetics come in?

To see the effects clearly, let's divide heifers from one herd into sire groups. Since the heifers are all raised with the same feed and same environment, we would perhaps expect to see that all of the bulls' daughters have the same pregnancy rates. In fact, the data shows dramatic differences.

This example is real. Data from the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA) indicates there are large, heritable differences between the pregnancy rates of different bulls' daughters raised under the same environment. If a pregnant heifer is worth $150 more than an open heifer, then Bull B's daughters are worth $66 more to the producer than Bull A's daughters. I think this is a conservative figure.

Clearly, extremely good management could mask the differences. If you get a 100% pregnancy rate, then no genetic differences are expressed. That does not mean that they are not there.

What if you saved a little money and fed your heifers less or bred them earlier to get a heavier calf? Then, your pregnancy rate would drop and the genetic differences would come out again.

In practice, the optimum profitability point for heifer pregnancy rate is usually not above 90%. If your pregnancy rate is that high, then you probably fed the heifers too much. By selecting for heifer pregnancy, we can decrease our feed inputs and still end up with the same pregnancy rates. This can significantly reduce the cost of raising replacements.

All this is possible. Although breed associations haven't normally collected this kind of pregnancy data, that may be changing. In September, the RAAA released its first heifer pregnancy EPDs on many of the breed's bulls.

Keep in mind, these first-time EPDs are low in accuracy; they are based on data from a limited number of herds that submitted pregnancy data to the RAAA. But, I expect more breeders and breed associations to develop this kind of useful data in the future.

As with all new EPDs, some bulls win and some bulls lose. The top bull in the Red Angus breed has a +15% EPD, and the lowest bull has a -15% EPD. This means if you bred a set of heifers with a 70% average pregnancy rate, then the top bull's daughters would hit 85% while the bottom bull's daughters would hit 55%. This is a huge difference.

Like any other trait, we should not select for this trait alone. But, if two bulls are equal on other traits, and one has a higher heifer pregnancy EPD, then I would pick the higher fertility bull for use in my herd.

The American Optometric Association (AOA) offers these tips to help prevent eye injuries:

- Wear wrap-around safety goggles made of polycarbonate. Look for labeling that says the goggles meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z87.1 standard.

- Don't rely on ordinary prescription glasses for protection.

- Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light can cause cataracts and contribute to age-related macular degeneration. Wear sunglasses that block 99-100% of the sun's UV-A and UV-B ultraviolet radiation.

- Sunglasses aren't dark enough if you can see your eyes through the lenses. Gray tint lens won't distort color perception.

- Before welding, put on a face shield made for welding. Each year, more than 14,000 eye accidents related to welding are reported.

If eye injury occurs, apply these emergency care procedures, then seek immediate treatment:

- For chemical splashes, flood the eye non-stop with clean water for 15 minutes. For alkaline burns (such as lime, lye, ammonia), irrigate the eye for 30 minutes.

- For blows to the eye from a blunt object, lightly apply a cold compress. Don't wash, rub or apply pressure, even to stop blood flow.

Range management is for the birds

Range management can help save prairie birds, according to recent Canadian research.

Good range management, says Brenda Dale of the Canadian Wildlife Service, provides what grassland birds need to survive. "Large blocks of native habitat in good to excellent range condition are best-case scenarios for grassland birds," she says, because they offer needed variation in cover height and thickness.

Management of riparian areas is also important because cottonwood forests along prairie rivers support larger bird populations and species diversity than communities in surrounding uplands. Andrew Hurly of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta and ecological consultant Elizabeth Saunders surveyed nine riparian sites: three ungrazed, three moderately grazed and three intensively grazed. Bird communities were assessed in both breeding seasons and fall migration periods.

"Bird breeding and diversity generally decreased from ungrazed to heavily grazed sites," Saunders says. Fluctuation in bird species is tied to grazing's effects on shrub cover, not directly to the presence of the cows. As shrub cover increases, so do riparian bird populations.

They also found that the diversity of insect species decreases as grazing pressure on riparian areas increases. And, the health of cottonwood forests decreased significantly under increasingly heavy grazing.

It's important, say Saunders and Hurly, that riparian areas are not subjected to high levels of grazing. Birds and vegetation can be a measure of a healthy riparian zone, which will support limited grazing year after year.

For more information contact Walter Willms, Lethbridge Research Centre, Lethbridge, Alberta at 403/317-2218 or e-mail [email protected]

A new way to protect consumers from harmful bacteria that may be found in meat has been discovered by scientists from the Center for Antimicrobial Research at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

The breakthrough involves applying a small amount of lactoferrin from cow's milk to the surface of meat during processing. Lactoferrin is a naturally occurring protein in mammalian milk that is credited with protecting infants from harmful bacteria while their immune systems are developing. By discovering how to activate the lactoferrin molecule, scientists were able to mimic its function on meat.

Laboratory tests showed the activated form of lactoferrin to be effective against more than 30 kinds of harmful bacteria, including E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Lactoferrin does not change the taste, flavor, color or appearance of meat.

Researchers say the amount of activated lactoferrin required to protect a serving of meat is many times less than the amount of lactoferrin found in a single glass of milk. Lactoferrin currently is produced from whey, a byproduct in the manufacturing of cheese from cow's milk.

Activated lactoferrin can be applied easily to meat products at the processing plant as an added step to the meat industry's existing multiple-hurdle bacterial control process, the researchers say. Because lactoferrin remains on the meat's surface, the compound may provide lasting protection from bacterial exposure after processing.

For more information contact Narain Naidu, director of the Center for Antimicrobial Research, at 909/869-3788, or e-mail [email protected]

Farmer-Feeder Leader

When Minnesota beef producers were challenged to make irradiated ground beef a commercial reality, Dennis Swan of the Minnesota Beef Council led the way. He's our Trailblazer Award honoree for 2000.

On May 16, 2000, a landmark event in U.S. public health history took place in Minnesota. The occasion was a press conference in Minneapolis marking the first day that irradiated or "cold-pasteurized" ground beef was commercially available to U.S. consumers.

In the audience was Dennis Swan, a third-generation farmer-feeder from Balaton, MN. He was one of a handful of beef producers among the gathering of national news media and representatives from government, public health and the food industry.

As the queue of distinguished speakers trooped to the microphone to extol the virtues of cold pasteurization and the significance of the day, Swan recollects how waves of pride washed over him.

"I remember how proud I was that this had all happened in my backyard; how it started in my own county. And, I thought about how Minnesota was again leading the way," he says.

As Swan sat there, he listened to Michael Osterholm, a world-renowned epidemiologist, describe the day as "an incredibly historic event." In front of consumer and trade media, Osterholm ranked the public health implications of the commercial debut of cold-pasteurized beef up there with the advent of immunizations and the chlorination and fluoridation of the water supply.

All the excitement was over a 2-lb. box of frozen ground beef patties produced by Huisken Meats, a small, independent processor located in Chandler, MN, just 20 miles south of Swan's 1,300-acre farm-feedlot in Murray County. The boxes containing the nation's first commercially available, irradiated beef product went on sale in Minneapolis grocery stores that day.

Within two months, the product was in 48 states, first through the Schwan's home delivery service and later through regional and national grocery chains supplied by Huisken.

It's understandable that the day would be an emotional one for 64-year-old Swan. It was the culmination of a three-year effort by Swan and the staff and members of the Minnesota Beef Council (MBC) he has chaired since July 1996.

"We did it because we knew irradiation could do for the beef industry what pasteurization had done for the dairy industry," Swan says. "Our people in Minnesota care about beef safety and are willing to get involved. Our staff, led by executive director Ron Eustice, directed it. Our board supported it. Our producers helped promote it, and our cattlewomen served samples.

"And, our Minnesota Department of Health helped by educating and influencing county health workers, opinion leaders and the public," Swan adds.

A Time Of Concern In 1997, stories about food-borne illness in fruit, vegetables and meat, but particularly E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, garnered big media attention. That August, an O157:H7 contamination resulted in the largest U.S. ground beef recall ever. Within months, processor Hudson Foods was out of business.

The stakes were high. This and other highly publicized cases had consumers, public health agencies and the beef industry in a tailspin. The incidents set off intense efforts in consumer education, rule making and research and development into methods to make the meat supply safer.

One of the best methods of controlling food-borne pathogens, however, was already proven and waiting on the shelf - irradiation. Researched for decades and approved by the World Health Organization and health authorities in 40 countries, use of the process had already been granted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for pork, poultry, fruits, spices, vegetables and grains. Approval for use on beef was expected in December 1997.

The problem was that food marketers and commodity groups were spooked that consumers might react negatively to irradiated food. As a result, little was being done to put this proven technology to practical, widespread use.

That was the backdrop when Osterholm, then the Minnesota state epidemiologist, contacted MBC's Eustice in fall 1997. He proposed that the MBC and his Minnesota Department of Health work together to make irradiated beef a commercial reality. He charged MBC with three tasks.

"He asked us to learn more about the irradiation process and determine the existing level of support among producers, packers, retailers and the institutional trade for the commercial use," Eustice says. "We also had to develop a strategy to educate the consumer about it."

They began by developing an issues forum on food safety for November of that year. Speakers and invitees to the forum included the Minnesota producer leadership as well as high-level executives from the food industry - packers, retail and food service. Also included were irradiation technology experts, market researchers and public health experts. Osterholm presented the keynote address.

"We laid out the history of food-borne illness, food safety and the irradiation technology. We talked about the benefits and discussed the objections," Eustice recalls. "Irradiated ground beef was served for lunch, the first time it had ever been served in Minnesota.

"At the end, the audience was asked: `where do we go from here?' There was unanimous agreement that irradiation was the way to go," Eustice says.

Among the most ardent, he says, was Swan.

"Mike Osterholm made me a believer," Swan recalls. "He talked to us about pathogens in meat, fruits and vegetables and the importance of irradiation, not as a silver bullet but as an added layer of protection. He asked for our help, and I felt we had to do it for the health and safety of consumers."

Volunteerism is a familiar attribute of Swan's. He served 23 years each on his township and elevator boards. He put in another 15 on his local school board. He's just beginning his 11th year on the MBC board - and his fourth as chairman - and he's a founding member of both MBC and the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association (MSCA).

Swan explains his extensive record of volunteerism as "just things you do for your community and industry. You don't accomplish anything alone."

The Trail To Success Irradiation of beef products gained FDA approval on Dec. 5, 1997. Soon after that, Eustice, Swan and MSCA president Glen Graff traveled in Swan's car to Ames, IA. There they met with Dennis Olson, director of Iowa State University's (ISU) Utilization Center for Agricultural Products. They also toured the nation's first commercial-size research irradiation facility located on the ISU campus.

When the trio returned to Minnesota, in Swan's trunk were 1,500 samples of frozen, irradiated ground beef patties from the ISU facility. Those samples, which were distributed in early February to attendees of the Minnesota Restaurant Association trade show in Minneapolis, were the first of more than 150,000 samples MBC staff and members would distribute at food industry trade shows, women's expos and fairs over the next two years.

The reaction, Swan recalls, was tremendous: "Of all the tens of thousands of samples we passed out over the past two years, we had very few complaints."

MBC staff and members cultivated relationships with media, working in tandem with health officials to deliver a positive message. No opportunity to promote irradiation was passed up. After a space shuttle launch, for instance, MBC issued a press release informing consumers that the astronauts' diet consisted of irradiated food.

At the 1999 Minnesota State Fair, Beef Council staff and members distributed more than 50,000 irradiated beef samples, provided by Excel, to fair goers. At the 2000 Minnesota State Fair, another 28,000 samples, these provided by Huisken Meats, were distributed.

Looking For New Technology Huisken Meats produces snacks and frozen ground beef patties for its own label as well as Schwan's home delivery service and a number of retail grocery chains. The company began researching irradiation in 1996, says regional sales manager Cliff Albertson.

Huisken Meats "has a reputation for being on the leading edge of food safety and production innovation on beef patties," Albertson says. The firm was one of the first plants in the country to be designated a Total Quality Control plant by USDA. Albertson says: "Irradiation was a next natural step for us."

In 1998, Huisken Meats began cooperating with Eustice and the MBC on consumer education programs. It culminated with the commercial debut of Huisken irradiated product on May 16, 2000.

The patties are irradiated using the SureBeam cold pasteurization process, which uses regular commercial electricity to destroy harmful food-borne bacteria such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Campylobacter. It's one of three irradiation processes available. The other two utilize either gamma or x-rays.

The response, Albertson says, has been "phenomenally good." In just five months, irradiated beef patties now make up 25% of all beef patties produced by Huisken Meats. The firm currently is in the stage of expanding its irradiated ground beef patty production to a new location in Sauk Rapids, MN.

Proud as they are of what cattle producers accomplished in Minnesota, Eustice and Swan would like to see a larger national presence for irradiated ground beef.

"It's important that the National Cattlemen's Beef Association get behind this with checkoff dollars," Swan says.

As a model, Eustice points to the U.S. dairy industry. "The dairy industry pasteurizes its products. You don't see them spending checkoff money to develop new intervention strategies to kill bacteria.

"The beef industry has the same option," Eustice says. "Irradiation is the answer. Education is the key."

Eustice and Swan feel the same alliances Minnesota cattlemen forged with public health and food industry groups can work on a national basis. Eustice points to numerous studies that indicate a high level of acceptance among consumers knowledgeable about food safety and the irradiation process.

As to the safety and effectiveness of irradiation, the science is irrefutable, Eustice says. He refers to a newspaper quote delivered by Osterholm in response to a reporter's question about the scientific merit of irradiation.

"Anyone that opposes irradiation on a scientific basis is a nut," he said.

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Portable Vet Clinic

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Dry conditions prompt sale of cows and heifers

Due to dry conditions and a shortage of feed, we gathered our cattle off the range a week early. Carolyn (my daughter-in-law) and I spent several days rounding them up.

Even in this dry year, many of our good range cows did not want to come home. They know how to utilize all of the range and were still working the outlying regions, so it took several days to find them all.

We also found the three that had been missing for more than a month - ever since hunters left a gate open in early August.

We started using the walkie-talkie radios when gathering the cattle off our upper mountain pastures (a week later) to bring down to the ranch to pregnancy check and vaccinate. Those radios will certainly save us time and miles in the future when gathering cattle.

We worked Michael and Carolyn's cows Sept. 18 and weaned their calves and Bangs vaccinated the heifers. We did the same to ours on Sept. 21.

It was much easier doing the split herd in two days; we actually got done before dark. We had a good pregnancy rate this year, and we were pleased with the size of the calves, considering the dry range.

Andrea felt badly that she couldn't help with the roundup or cow working. Next year she should be back in the saddle again, we hope.

She is progressing with her physical therapy, driving herself to town now for her sessions. She still has stiffness in her knees, especially the one that had deep burns (and a heavy skin graft over it), but she is slowly getting the range of motion back. Her elbows have been more worrisome. The raw areas have been enlarging rather than healing due to the joint motion.

When Lynn took her back to Salt Lake for a checkup Sept. 27, the doctor didn't like the looks of the elbows and scheduled more surgery on Oct. 5. She was dismayed at the thought of more surgery, but this will be minor compared to what she's already gone through.

We are trying to prepare for winter and calving season. Because of our hay shortage, we are going to sell some pregnant heifers and young cows. With fewer cows, our January calving season will also be a little easier. Maybe things will be more normal the following year when Andrea may be more able to help again.


Beating America's number one health problem requires balance between work and family.

Is it any wonder veterinarians feel stress? In the best of times, they work long hours. During calving season, however, they embark on two frenzied months in which they forget what sleep is like.

A vet's home life is often chaotic. They strain to pay student loans that can top $60,000. The work is very dangerous. And, when the ranch and farm economy sours, they may not even get paid.

Stress is a fact of life for many Americans. Large animal veterinarians probably get much more than their share. But, some veterinarians find ways to handle the pressures that crush their colleagues, while others actually thrive in the pressure cooker that large animal vets work in.

"Every vet gets stressed," says David Horn, a veterinary practice consultant based in Greenwich, NY. "Whether they handle stress right is another question."

A handful of factors seem to separate those who survive from those who suffer failed marriages, financial drain, depression and poor health. One of the most important is the ability to balance work and personal lives.

"Veterinary medicine is a way to make a living that allows you to live the rest of your life," says Horn. "It should not be your life. Everybody needs a balance between work and play and family. Doing that will go a long way toward relieving stress."

"I go to the gym four days a week," says Jeff Tyler, head of the food animal section at the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine. For a hobby, he buries himself in books. "For somebody else, it might be hunting or fishing," he says. "Everybody needs down time."

Frank Gary, coordinator of the Integrated Livestock Management program at Colorado State University, plays hockey. "When you get done playing, you feel you're exhilarated.

"Five or six years ago, I had to step back because I was really getting burned out," he recalls. "I felt over committed. It's very bad to get to the point where the next phone call ticks you off.

"I started learning to say `no.' I developed a better appreciation of priorities. I became very conscious when somebody asked me to do something; I would ask, `will it conflict with my family and other priorities?' I would say, `it's Sunday and I will not do professional work unless it's an emergency.'"

Another stress eliminator is laughter. Humorist Karyn Buxman, Hannibal, MO, makes her living bringing the art of humor to doctors and other professionals. "We're now able to document the positive side of humor and laughter on the by-products of stress."

Laughter helps to drain tension from the body, and it works its magic quickly. Anybody who has been lifted from the doldrums by a joke knows you can't laugh and be depressed at the same time.

Put Life In Perspective But, there are other techniques. One of them is to put events into perspective, says Buxman. "Ask if this problem is going to make any difference 10 years, 10 days, 10 hours or even 10 minutes from now. Ask yourself how this could be worse. Take the problem and exaggerate it again and again and again. Then when you look at the original problem, it's a no brainer."

Still, it's hard for people who are wracked by stress to put their lives in perspective.

"It's like a treadmill," says the University of Nebraska's Ron Hanson, who helps farm families cope with financial and family stress. "Once you get on it, you can't get off. You ask, `how am I going to be able to do this, how am I going to pay for that?' It seems like everything is going against you."

Often, the victims of stress will attempt to bury the problems. "I encourage individuals to ask for help. Don't be afraid to let somebody know you have a problem. Most people try to work it out themselves. They withdraw. They say, `I can't go home and talk to my wife and tell her the veterinary practice is really struggling.'

"They get to that mentality of feeling isolated and alone. Next thing you know, that leads to a state of depression. That's the real danger. Then everything falls apart because you don't have any enthusiasm; you don't have any energy. You don't want to go to work. You have all those bills you can't pay. You just give up," Hanson says.

The solution, Hanson adds, is to address the problem, find someone to talk to and put events in perspective. "Life doesn't always work out the way you want it to. You just have to go on.

"I've seen families go through the toughest of times and still stay together because that was their priority. That was the most important thing when they started, and that is what's most important today," Hanson says.

People get caught up in capitalistic things and forget about relationships, he says. "Many farmers think if they lose the farm, they've lost everything. It's the same with vets. If that's their attitude, they're going to have a problem with their hearts."

If you suffer from stress, you're not alone. The American Institute of Stress calls stress the nation's number-one health problem. It's not hard to see why.

Stress is believed to be a cause of a host of illnesses, including heart and lung disease, cancer, back disorders, ulcers, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, depression and diminished functioning of the immune system. Stress doesn't just make you feel lousy; it can make you sick. Overall, the institute estimates 1 million workers are absent on the average workday because of stress-related complaints.

Stress also costs us money. The institute puts the national financial toll at $300 billion from lost workdays, lost productivity, employee turnover, industrial accidents, and higher medical, legal and insurance costs.

In particular, claims for stress-related illness help raise health insurance rates. That's important for vets since they often have to buy their own health insurance.

And finally, stress can wreck personal and working lives. Stress has been linked to job burnout, irritability, anger, marital discord and divorce.

Some sources of stress go with the job. To cope with these, a vet must learn to handle the stress. A $100,000 student loan that will take 20 years to pay is an example.

But, many other sources of stress are readily solvable. For these, the solution is to solve the problem, says veterinary practice consultant David Horn. Here are three examples of problems and possible solutions:

- Too little income. "If you're an associate, you need to negotiate with the clinic owner for a better pay package," says Horn. However, that might mean more work, he adds. If you own the practice, Horn says, there are probably areas to improve profitability through better collection of accounts receivable, inventory management and pricing.

- Too much work during calving season. Work with another vet so you can get some time off, even if it's just a day or an afternoon.

- Difficult clients. In some cases, drop the client, Horn suggests. In others, he says, vets should sit down with the client and try to resolve matters.