Rodeo vets focus on healthy herds

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Justin Burrus, Blue Sky Farms dairy manager, helps his son Hayden, 12, drain urine out of his cow, Ellie, after Hayden’s jersey cow won first place in the Junior Dairy Cattle Show competition Feb. 8 at the AT&T Center. The first-place cows are drug tested to ensure no cheating in the competition. The first-place winner wins a $10,000 scholarship. Geoffrey Hovatter

Few people know what goes on to service the 60,000 animals the stock show draws.

By Noah Alcala Bach

The only thing that could stand between 12-year-old Hayden Burrus and a $10,000 scholarship is what the lab at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo finds in his jersey cow’s urine.

After winning grand champion in the jersey division of the junior dairy cattle show, Hayden handed over a bag of his cow’s urine to the vet clinic on-site.

Tucked away from the rodeo festivities, the clinic features an array of animal aromas, modest manila walls, pine cabinets and a fridge where the grand champion’s urine is stored.

A failed urine test can mean losing thousands of dollars in scholarship money, so the team is meticulous in logging samples and filling out paperwork.

The vets collect about 250 samples daily to send to the lab for testing.

Veterinarian Benjamin Espy talks about animal care during the 2020 San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo Feb. 8 at the AT&T Center and Freeman Coliseum. Geoffrey Hovatter

The animals’ urine is examined not only for common performance enhancers but also other substances people wouldn’t normally expect. Caffeine, alcohol and over-the-counter drugs were mentioned as substances that can provide an advantage.

For Dr. Benjamin Espy, collecting gallons of animal urine is just one part of his job overseeing veterinary services for the stock show and rodeo, a job he’s done for the past 25 years.

Espy once did the job solo, but as the rodeo grew, so did the team.

Espy is grateful this year to lead Dr. Gerald Johnson and interns Joseph Blount and Kleg Kennedy, both of whom are set to graduate in May from Texas A&M University with degrees in veterinary science.

“There’s four of us on the ground and that seems to be a sweet spot,” Espy said. “We’re still super busy, but it’s not overwhelming.”

During the rodeo, Johnson and the interns live on-site and Espy reports each morning at 8 a.m. to look after the health of tens of thousands of livestock.

Overseeing the health of that many animals can seem a daunting task for four, but the medical staff divide the labor to help them handle the workload.

Espy has his own independent equine veterinary practice, so he mainly treats the horses, and Johnson focuses on cattle.

“It’s good because my normal practice I work with food animals, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. And, of course, his is equine,” said Johnson in his strong Texan accent. “So it works out real good that he’s the horse guy and I’m the cattle guy. Everything goes real smoothly.”

Espy estimates they treat between 15 to 30 animals on a normal day but stresses the unpredictable nature of the stock show and rodeo and admits that some days the numbers are just “off the charts.”

Just like with humans, when an animal contracts a virus that could be harmful to the others, a quarantine protocol is put in place if an animal is contagious.

Espy designed this protocol about 15 years ago when a few viruses made their way through a barn. Today maps of all the barns are used by the vets and show what part of the barn they’re closing off to contain the virus.

Animal fatalities aren’t common, but because of the sheer number of competitors, they do happen.

“Over the course of the show, we have about 60,000 animals come through here. When you deal with that many animals, it’s just inevitable,” Espy said. “It’s the same thing as we have a million people come through here every year so we have people die here.”

When an animal is put down at the rodeo, the process is similar to that of putting a family pet to rest. The owner’s consent is needed before the vets euthanize.

Because all the animals are registered with the state, the vets must remove an ear tag and then fill out paperwork confirming that the animal is no longer alive.

Even though it’s not done in a traditional office, the euthanasia is humane.

For Espy, a father of four, the hardest part of the job isn’t the veterinary work but the human element.

“I can treat animals all day long. The most difficult thing is the kids. When you have a sick animal, there’s always a kid attached to that animal so that’s tough,” Espy said. “They can’t process why their animal they’ve worked on for so many months is now sick and being treated. I think that’s the hardest thing trying to explain to the kid there’s nothing they did wrong.”

While Espy does his best to enable the vets to focus on the care and health of animals, Johnson says the workload for the staff is split evenly between caring for sick animals and collecting urine.

Just like Hayden, contest winners’ victory trot calls for them to pass through the clinic to have their livestock’s urine tested.

While the vets know what is going to be searched for in the samples they provide, they don’t do the analysis and have no knowledge of positive tests.

“I know there’s possibilities that they could lose scholarships and stuff, but it’s all so much further above us, but that’s the way I like to keep it,” Johnson said. “It’s more of a political deal than anything, so all we do is just ensure it gets collected properly, stored properly and transported to the lab correctly.”

For the duration of the rodeo, the U.S.’s seventh largest city is a collision of urban and rural.

In the cattle barn, rows of livestock are showcased next to logos for farms mostly from small Texas towns.

Family members set up lawn chairs in the rows while looking after the animals.

Justin Burrus, Blue Sky Farms dairy manager, shows his cow Ellie’s health information to veterinarian intern Kleg Kennedy, filling out paper work to send to a lab with a urine sample. The rodeo tests the first place winners for performance-enhancing drugs after the competition. Burrus’ son, Hayden, 12, cleaned and presented his winning cow in the Jersey Junior Dairy Cattle Show Feb. 8 at the 2020 San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Geoffrey Hovatter

“There’s just a different kind of mentality with rural people than urban. I’m an urban person myself but working with people that grew up in the country who are just super polite,” Espy said. “When I’m busting my tail trying to take care of an animal, they see that and they honor that. I get jams, jellies, and farm fresh eggs, pickles and all kinds of random stuff.”

But Espy says he feels like the edge he has coming from an urban area helps him do his job. “It’s a veterinary job, but it’s also super political.”

Espy feels the political elements of his job make it undesirable. Dealing with people who have criticisms and feel his staff should do things a certain way and additionally taking on administrative work instead of veterinary work. His staff all comes from a range of rural places in Texas and their main focus is just to do the job and not have to deal with politics or elements outside of caring for animals.

On his way out of the clinic, Hayden handed the paperwork back to the interns, Blount and Kennedy, who will cross the stage at commencement soon. It’s the same stage Johnson and Espy walked years earlier.

When he started at the rodeo, Johnson was also a couple months away from obtaining his degree. He recalls the impact that working with Espy has had.

“Dr. Espy and I became really good friends when I did that internship and that’s why he got me to come back. To this day when I have a question, he’s the first person I call. I enjoy working with him.”

Meanwhile, Hayden will have to sit tight and wait until his cow’s urine is tested to find out if he can collect his prize money.


1 Comment

  1. Why are 60,000 cattle put through this each year at the rodeo? Why should animals be put through this exploitative, invasive and no doubt traumatic practice for profit? Surely there are other ways these kids can get a scholarship. Time honored or not, the rodeo and this massive cattle judging event puts too many animals at risk unnecessarily and is very much out of step with animal welfare and health concerns. Drug testing the urine of mass amounts of cattle packed in small spaces at an over-crowed rodeo does not make this vet a hero.

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