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Where the Mate and cattle never end

Uruguay Veterinary Experience -

Where the Mate and cattle never end

by Robert Stenger

Mississipi State University, CVM

Becoming a veterinarian is an aspiration that came later to me than many of my peers. After high school I left West Virginia and the family farm to attended Denison University - majoring in biology with the goal of becoming a wildlife biologist or ecologist. I thoroughly enjoyed the material and studying biology, but by the end of my senior year having been away from the farm for a few years I realized I would like to find a way to combine my interest in biology with livestock. Veterinary medicine seemed like the perfect fit, and I have not looked back yet. I was able to do a fair bit of traveling before veterinary school having traveled to Australia, the Republic of Georgia, and across the USA on a four-month motorcycle trip to Alaska. I figured that it would be the end of my travels once I entered veterinary school; boy was I mistaken. Mississippi State has  been amazingly supportive of international travel providing travel grants and working with students to establish international connections. In the summer of 2016, I went to Uganda for six-weeks to work on an international research collaboration investigating mountain gorilla internal parasites; I just returned from spending a month in Uruguay; and within the next year I have plans to travel to Romania and Australia. Rather than closing the door on my passion for travel, veterinary medicine has opened more doors for me. It is an ideal combination, as I can travel and work with livestock and farmers while I do it, giving me the best of both.
My family has a cattle and sheep which is the root of my passion for livestock medicine and also is how I started down the path that culminated in me spending a month working in Uruguay. My father showed me an article about a veterinary, Dr. Juan Scalone, from Uruguay who had visited sheep farms in Ohio. I tracked down his contact information, and then arranged for him to visit me and Mississippi State’s veterinary school and my family’s farm. We talked a lot about veterinary medicine, agriculture, and my passions and goals. He became a mentor for me. Although he now lives in Italy, he worked to set up an experience in Uruguay for me. He put me in contact with some of his family there and farmers that were his past clients. After about a year and a half of planning I had everything ready and set off for Uruguay. Well almost everything, I worked as best I could to learn Spanish before arriving to Uruguay, but with school and everything going on I wasn’t able to progress as much as I would have liked.
I arrived early in the morning to the international airport after having short layovers in Miami and Bogota. I would spend the first couple days with a friend in the capital city, Montevideo, before heading to the interior to work. Uruguay, roughly the size of North Dakota, has a population of about 3.4 million with over a third of that located in and around Montevideo. I stayed in Montevideo for just a few days before catching a bus for Salto, a town located on the River Uruguay which serves as the border with Argentina. Uruguay is a country very dependent on agriculture; it has the highest beef production per capita of any country. The country is divided by the Rio Negro with the land south of it more fertile and used more intensively while the land to the north is generally less productive and used for more extensive livestock grazing. I spent most of my time working on large expansive ranches of beef cattle and sheep.
A two day intrauterine insemination course at the University of Uruguay San Antonio Campus and Farm. Inseminating a Merino ewe.
The first day in Salto I woke up at 4:30am and drove a couple hours north to the border with Brazil. I was with three veterinarians and our job for the day was to bleed 1,400 head of cattle for brucellosis testing. Not that bleeding cattle is the most technically challenging task, but when you do that many it helps you get quicker for sure, so I appreciated the experience. We had three, and a half, veterinarians going full bore, and a handful of gauchos keeping the chute full for us. It took us all day, but we finished. It was a hot and smelly ride back to town that evening. There is a big difference between Spanish when you are meeting someone for coffee or at the airport versus when you are working cattle. The accents of the people in northern Uruguay, especially the farm workers are very challenging and the content was filled with slang and technical farm jargon that I’d not learned in my Spanish courses. Luckily, as I told a friend, the language of working cattle is universal. For the most part the cattle in Uruguay act and react the same way as cattle in the USA, so I felt comfortable working cattle because my lack of fluency in Spanish was compensated by my proficiency in cattle handling. While in Uruguay, I also got experience in ultra-sounding pregnancy in cattle, processing calves, feedlot management, and even a two-day course on intrauterine insemination of sheep. I spent four days working on the ranch of the family I was staying with. They saddled up some Creole horses and asked if I had ridden before. In the past ten years I have probably been on a horse for a combined hour. They asked if I knew how to ride, I honestly said yes, but I think they may have been more hesitant to let me ride if they knew the limited extent of my experience. Over the next couple weeks in Uruguay I would spend many days working cattle and sheep by horseback. It like many things during my time in Uruguay was trial by fire. I was able to gain a lot of technical experience and learn some tricks about handling livestock, but the most significant result of the experience were the connections I made and relationships I built.
Three Gauchos; from left to right: Robert Stenger, Alvaro the farm worker, and Manual Brites, the farm owners son. Rounding up cattle and sheep for vaccinations and deworming.
To describe all the people I met and the experiences I had in Uruguay is not in the scope of this short essay, but the kindness and hospitality shown to me was truly remarkable. The household I stayed with treated me as part of the family. I was able to work on their farm, go to the pool with their teenage son, and go grocery shopping with the mother. The children spoke some English but most all our conversation were in Spanish. It greatly improved my language skills and appreciation for the daily life in Uruguay to be immersed like this in a family. Along with many others, I hope will visit me in the USA, the family had two sons in their twenties. One is a veterinary student and one an agronomist. I told them they both need to take English lessons, so they can come stay with me. I will likely be settling down into a rural large or mixed animal practice and taking over my family farm in West Virginia. This means I will not have much time to travel. My hope is that I will have enough friends from Uruguay and my other travels who will visit me. That way it will feel like I am traveling even when I am working at home.

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