Early in his career, Dr. Tom Burkgren heard good advice: to strive for a point where he could work for fun and focus on his passions.
"You can persevere through the hard times if you know you're doing something that matters," he said.
As executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians since 1997, Dr. Burkgren led the association through pork price collapse, industry consolidation, the fight against porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, the campaign that eradicated swine pseudorabies in commercial herds, the national outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea, debates over sow housing, a shift toward veterinarians acting as managers on farms, added restrictions and oversight of antimicrobial use, and 23 association presidencies. He retired from that job this spring, although he will keep running two other businesses.
He and his wife, Sue Kimpston, own a pet food company, Northern Plains Distributing LLC, in a partnership with one of Dr. Burkgren's lifelong friends, Bob Murphy.
And Dr. Burkgren has been working over the past five years with another friend, Dr. Paul Sundberg, who is executive director of the Swine Health Information Center, to develop euthanasia technology using low atmospheric pressure. At press time, they expected to bring the technology to market this spring for use on pigs, with other species to come.
Face of AASV
Dr. Burkgren started working for the AASV in 1994—when it was the American Association of Swine Practitioners—as a part-time liaison who could provide a familiar face in meetings with regulators. He remained in swine practice near Perry, Iowa, and continued doing business consulting for farms and veterinary practices, along with working for drug companies and teaching veterinary business courses at Iowa State University.
His varied career is a product of his short attention span, he said. He had a great relationship with clients in general practice but felt there was more he could do.
The AASV hired Dr. Burkgren as its full-time director in 1997. In 1998, pork prices plummeted in response to large supplies of meat and weak export markets, and many small farms left the swine industry.
"We lost a lot of mixed animal practitioners, and we started seeing an increase in swine-only veterinarians," he said.
From the 1997 Census of Agriculture to the 2002 edition, the number of U.S. farms with swine dropped from 110,000 to 79,000, with a rise only in the number of farms with more than 2,000 hogs. Figures in the 2017 census, the most recent available at press time, show similar trends, with a drop to 66,000 swine-owning farms.
With swine industry consolidation, the swine veterinarians who work with large farms have shifted toward diagnostics and population-based medicine, Dr. Burkgren said. Better tools have helped them improve how they monitor health on all farms.
Monitoring population health has become more sophisticated even as sample collection has become easier. Veterinarians who once had to catch pigs and draw blood for routine samples, for example, now can collect saliva from ropes hung in pens, he said.
Veterinarians also are taking a greater role in training farm employees on pig care, handling, and procedures such as administering injections and castration, Dr. Burkgren said.
"As the farms get bigger, they have more employed labor, less family labor," he said.
Opportunities in swine medicine
Dr. Burkgren said the AASV has its strongest collection of staff members yet, with the recent additions of communications director Dr. Abbey Canon and animal welfare director Sherrie Webb, who also is associate editor for the Journal of Swine Health and Production, along with the new executive director, Dr. Harry Snelson, and associate director Dr. Sue Schulteis. He also praised the volunteer committees as strong and active.
"I feel good about where the AASV is, and my goal, when I started with the AASP, no matter when I left, was to leave it in better shape than it was when I started," he said. "And hopefully I've done that, at least to a small degree."
Dr. Sundberg had started working for the National Pork Producers Council when he met Dr. Burkgren in 1994. He described Dr. Burkgren as thoughtful, intelligent, cooperative, and focused.
"Throughout his career, Tom has been extremely focused in his work to better the American Association of Swine Veterinarians as an association and to better the members of AASV," Dr. Sundberg said.
Dr. Sundberg said the longtime AASV executive director always is professional on behalf of the AASV. In private, Dr. Burkgren is personable and family-focused.
Because of Dr. Burkgren's leadership, the AASV has navigated well through tricky waters, Dr. Sundberg said. Dr. Burkgren acknowledges the job came with hard days.
When the outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea started in 2013, he spent long hours gathering information and talking with agriculture officials to help find the source. He told veterinarians that member surveys indicated feed contamination might be a risk, a finding that later would be backed by research results on virus survival and the Department of Agriculture's determination the virus likely arrived in imported feed ingredients. He took slings and arrows for that position, he said.
"I've never had one day, in the last 25 years, when I've regretted working for AASP and AASV," he said. "And some days are harder than others. I think that, at the end of a lot of days, I've really felt satisfied with how the day has gone and what we've accomplished."
Today, young veterinarians, even those just out of veterinary school, have opportunities in the swine industry and AASV, Dr. Burkgren said. They are paid well for stimulating jobs, he said.
"Being a swine veterinarian can be challenging at times but also very rewarding, just from the type of intelligence that it takes and how they become immersed in that animal health conundrum," he said.
That conundrum is how to keep pigs healthy yet keep food from those pigs safe while reducing the financial risk to clients.
He also has some advice for young veterinarians: "Find something that you're engaged with and something that matters. And if that's swine veterinary medicine, that's great. But don't just take a job to fill your time."
Dr. Burkgren thinks the challenges in swine medicine are rewarding whether a veterinarian is beginning or ending a career. But he said retirement from swine medicine is a relative term.