Feature

May 2022 Today's Farmer Magazine

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Finding the balance

MENTAL HEALTH AND PHYSICAL HEALTH GO HAND IN HAND— just like livestock farming and veterinary medicine. You cannot have one without the other. Yet, when it comes to mental health, many farmers and veterinarians refuse to discuss it.

“We need to break the stigmas associated with talking about mental health,” said Cliff Miller, DVM, a mixed-animal veterinarian and owner of Green Hills Veterinary Clinic in Moberly, Mo. “We are in this together.”

First observed in May 1949, Mental Health Awareness month was es­tablished to bring attention to the importance of mental health and well­ness. It also celebrates those who are being treated, who are maintaining, and who have recovered from mental illness.

The last two years of pandemic living have made many people realize that stress, uncertainty, depression and anxiety have impacted their well-being. In particular, mental health awareness in the veterinary medical community has come to the forefront with an alarming rise in the number of suicides among veterinarians.

Abby Whiting, DVM, a practitioner at Veterinary Specialty Service in St. Louis, is the chair of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association’s (MVMA) Wellbeing Task Force. She also serves as a moderator for Not One More Vet (NOMV), a professional organization that focuses on trans­forming the status of mental wellness within the profession.

“COVID pulled back the blanket, revealing many of the issues that our field deals with,” Whiting said. “It has magnified problems such as long hours, not enough vets in rural areas, staffing shortages, burnout, over­whelming debt and not being able to balance work with home life.”

In 2020, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported the median salary for a veterinarian as $99,250. However, the average vet school debt, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), is $150,000, with some students reporting more than $400,000 in loans.

“The debt-to-income ratio does not add up, so many leave the profes­sion for higher-paying jobs,” Whiting said.

Adding to the professional stress is when clients try to negotiate the cost and care of the animal, which veterinarians say devalues their services.

“Those of us who are in veterinary medicine are hyper-sensitive to how much our goods and services are,” Whiting said. “We cannot give away services because that is not sustainable. Clients need to understand all the costs and trust that we have their animal’s best interest in mind. We are in the field because we are compassionate people.”

Like farming, veterinary medicine is a career that attracts individu­als who are independent and have a strong work ethic and desire to be self-reliant while helping others. The days are long and grueling, and many times the veterinarian is dealing with life-or-death situations. Emer­gencies and severe trauma to the animal are just as painful to the provider as the owner.

“My generation was told to suck it up,” said Linda Hickam, DVM, who has practiced veterinary medicine for 30 years.

Family life often ends up suffering, Hickam added, because many veterinarians spend so many hours in the office or making house calls and emergency farm visits.

“It is important to find that healthy balance between your work and your home life,” she said. “With our profession, sometimes it is difficult to stop and not take that call as you are walking out the door.”

Hickam, whose daughter is a practicing veterinarian in Kansas, said she thinks the younger generation of veterinarians is doing a better job with that balance.

“I am happy to see that my daughter has a group of people she can reach out to when issues arise,” Hickam said. “Social media has been a blessing for those types of connections. She stays in touch with former classmates, and they seem to be very open to sharing their struggles and supporting one another.”

With 10 years in the field, Jessica Stroupe, DVM, is the owner of Howard County Veterinary Service in Fayette, Mo. She and her staff provide care to large and small animals, while supporting and looking out for each other’s well-being.

“I am very open with my staff about mental health and letting them know that it is normal to feel off,” Stroupe said, adding that she believes most veterinarians are per­fectionists and introverts. “It’s difficult to acknowledge the stress and reach out for help. In my clinic, we foster a positive and healthy culture. When I hire a new vet or staff member, I look for someone who will fit into our culture and who shares our core values. With men­tal well-being, I believe that it is OK to seek help. Do it. You need it. It is not a character flaw. It is a sign of strength and self-awareness.”

To help balance her busy work and home life—which in­cludes two young sons and a baby boy on the way—Stroupe is active with community theater, loves traveling and is an avid runner.

“Daily exercise, healthy eating and weeding out toxic behav­iors keep me on track,” she said. “It is important to recognize that part of mental wellness is having interests that are not part of your profession. Fulfillment outside of the office is vital to staying in check.”

Dr. Hickam agrees. “You need to have a hobby so veterinary medicine is not your only identity,” she said. With an exten­sive background in mixed-animal practices and epidemiology located in rural, commercial and international settings, Hickam’s career has come full circle. She was an associate veterinarian in Mexico, Mo., for 11 years, then moved to MFA Incorporated as the swine vet for three years. She went back into private practice before serving the Missouri Department of Agriculture for 10 years, first as the state veterinary epidemiologist and then as the state veterinarian and Animal Health Division director. Today, Hickam is practicing at the Mexico Veterinary Hospital in Mexico, Mo.

With all of her experiences in the field, she believes that veterinarians are in the profession to develop re­lationships with clients while caring for their animals.

“I love the interaction I have with clients; that is what I love most about my practice,” Hickam said. “It is wonderful to see how these relationships develop and evolve through time. You need to be mentally and physical healthy for your clients and their ani­mals to be a successful vet.”

Dr. Miller, who served as president of the MVMA when the Wellbeing Task Force was founded in 2018, notes that 1 in 6 veterinarians have had suicid­al thoughts due to the stress of the job.

“The epidemic of suicide in our profession is a com­plex topic that requires a multi-factorial approach,” Miller said. “The MVMA leadership team asked what we should be doing to help our members with addressing mental health issues so we don’t reach that extreme.”

To help navigate these issues and to provide resources and support, the MVMA hosts an annual convention with wellness seminars and offers remote learning for its districts.

“We offer continuing education to increase resilience and to support vets and their staff who are dealing with stress and anxiety,” Whiting said. “The Task Force publishes a newsletter and has resources on the MVMA website for those in need. We are also creating a client code of conduct.”

The American Veterinary Medical As­sociation offers a free online course called “Question. Persuade. Refer.” (QPR) to help veterinarians and their staff to talk about ways to deal with those who need help.

“I want to be the bridge to lead people to all the resources we have,” Whiting said. “After taking this class I now know what to say to people—just asking them if they are doing okay.”

The University of Missouri Extension and College of Veterinary Medicine are also working to prevent suicide and promote mental well-being among veterinarians. The Missouri Farm and Ranch Stress project provides free mental health (Mental Health First Aid), suicide prevention (QPR Gatekeepers) and personal well-being (Taking Care of You) programs as well as free telepsychology counseling sessions that include veterinarians and their dependents.

“You are not alone,” said Karen Funkenbusch, project manager for Missouri Farm and Ranch Stress. “There are many resources to help veterinarians, just like there are places for farmers and ranchers to seek help.”

Addressing the issues of stress and anxiety for veteri­narians while they are still in training may help. Toward that end, the MU College of Veterinary Medicine has re­cently embedded a psychologist within the school. This allows students to access the services with greater ease and flexibility since their schedules are so demanding.

Illness and disease—physical as well as mental— strike everyone. Someone who appears to be very healthy and happy on the outside could be fighting cancer or debilitating depression on the inside. There is no difference. However, society often views cancer diagnosis as a battle, while depression can be seen as weakness in character.

Veterinarians are among those who want to see that change.

“We need to open the door and talk about mental wellness. The more we talk, the less of a stigma is attached,” Whiting said. “You are not a bad person or doctor if you seek treatment. There are many people out there willing to talk to you about it. Check on your staff, your classmates, yourself. Together we can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being.”

Self-care for Veterinarians

Well-being isn’t a single measure of health. It is composed of nine unique dimensions that touch upon every aspect of our lives: occupational, intellectual, spiritual, social, emotional, physical, financial, creative and environmental. These dimen­sions work together and collaboratively contribute to overall mental health. By the same token, when one area is lacking, the others will also be impacted.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, these are the dimensions of well-being:

  • Occupational — Being engaged in work you find satisfying that aligns with your values, goals, and lifestyle
  • Intellectual — Learning new things; participating in activities that foster critical thinking and expand your world views
  • Spiritual — Having a sense of inner harmony and balance
  • Social — Surrounding yourself with a network of support built on mutual trust, respect, and compassion
  • Emotional — Being able to identify and manage your full range of emotions, and seeking help when necessary
  • Physical — Taking care of your body by getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, etc.
  • Financial — Being aware of personal finances and adhering to a budget that enables you to meet your financial goals
  • Creative — Participating in diverse cultural and artistic experiences
  • Environmental — Taking an active role in preserving, protecting and improving the environment

In each area, assess where you are currently, and decide if you are satisfied with how you are doing. You can then identify areas to target for improvement. For more information and resources, visit www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing.

If you or someone you know needs help with managing mental well-being, these are among the resources available for vet­erinarians, practice management, practice staff, producers and families.

American Veterinary Medical Association Tools for Well-being

avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing

Not One More Vet: Online and anonymous peer-to-peer support

NOMV.org

University of Missouri Extension Show-Me Strong Farm Families

extension.missouri.edu/programs/ agrability/show-me-strong-farm-families

Show Me Hope Crisis Counseling Program

moshowmehope.org/

facebook.com/MoShowMeHope/

University of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work Program (for any veterinarian)

vetsocialwork.utk.edu/

Missouri Crisis Line

573-445-5035 or text HAND to 839863

Show Me Hope Crisis Line

800-985-5990

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741

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Prepare for battle

“How many of you dealt with armyworms this past year?” asked Shannon McClintock, MFA staff agronomist, as he began a presentation to more than 200 attendees at MFA’s Winter Agronomy Training in January.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

And they weren’t alone. In 2021, growers experienced the worst invasion of fall armyworms in some 30 years. Battalions of these devastating pests ate their way through forages and row crops across MFA territory, often obliter­ating entire fields seemingly overnight.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” MFA Senior Staff Agronomist Scott Wilburn said. “We’ve had armyworm infestations before, but they’ve always been very isolated. They were all over the place last year.”

In late August, Wilburn got a call from local farmer Kevin Davis who wanted to know what was happening in some alfalfa on his farm in Mexico, Mo. One look, and Wilburn knew. True to their name, fall armyworms had marched across the four-acre field, stripping the leaves from nearly all the plants.

“One day that field was fine, and the next day it was gone,” Davis said. “You could see the armyworms crawling all over the ground. They left the stems, and that was about it.”

Experts say a perfect storm of conditions contributed to the onslaught. Fall armyworms are not cold-tolerant, so they usu­ally overwinter in South America or the southernmost regions of Texas and Florida. Each spring, the adult moths emerge from the soil and make their way north by flying into the jet stream or other storm fronts. The pests tend to drop out of the sky in random locations, which makes it hard to predict where they’re going to be.

But last year’s warm, mild winter caused more fall army­worms to survive in typically colder climates. This led to an earlier infestation than usual, catching many farmers off guard. 

What’s more, fall armyworms feed late at night or early in the morning, so they can be difficult to detect, especially the younger larvae that eat very little. Most of the food in their life cycle is consumed in later growth stages when the pests are particularly voracious.

“Over 75 percent of the armyworm’s feeding actually comes in the last in-star, which is roughly two to three days of its life,” McClintock said. “That’s why it seems like it happens overnight. By the time we realize there’s a problem, the damage is done.”

Will such an assault happen again this year? McClintock said there’s no easy answer.

“It depends,” he said. “There are so many factors involved in whether or not we’ll actually see a large outbreak like we did last year.”

Weather is certainly one of those factors, and much of the U.S. experienced another mild winter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In March, the agency reported that the average temperature from December through February in the contiguous states was 34.8 degrees—about 2.5 degrees above average. Missouri was even warmer, with an average temperature of 35.2 degrees, 3.1 degrees higher than the winter of 2021.

Typically, fall armyworms don’t show up in MFA territory un­til June or July, McClintock said. Damage may initially appear as drought stress. Fall armyworms spread quickly throughout pastures and crop fields, so scouting is the best way to detect their presence and determine their threat. Fall armyworms do not feed during the heat of the day, so scouting in early morning or evening is the best way to find them. Birds or other predator activity can also be an indicator of infestation.

Fall armyworm caterpillars range from shades of brown, gray, green or yellow-green. McClintock said their most distinguishing characteristic is a white inverted Y between the eyes and three white stripes behind the head. Develop­ment from eggs to full-grown lar­vae often takes two to three weeks, at which point the caterpillars will burrow into the soil to pupate and emerge as adult moths 10 to 14 days later. The life cycle begins again, and multiple generations can occur each year.

Because armyworms feed rapidly, it is important to treat severe infestations with an appropriate insecticide as soon as possible to avoid further damage. However, there are some im­portant considerations before treatment, McClintock warned.

“There were a lot of reports last year that insecticide appli­cations were being made, but worms weren’t dying,” he said. “There’s a few theories why. One thing, we had high popula­tions in each field and multiple generations at a time. Second, application timing is huge. Because the larvae actually go below the residue to cool off during the heat of the day, you probably won’t get good coverage if you spray during that time. Also, fall armyworms resistant to pyrethroids have been discovered, so we could have some possible resistance issues.”

Worldwide, fall armyworms feed on more than 300 species of plants. Grasses are the preferred food source, but McClintock said all major crops in MFA territory are potential hosts.

Corn

Fall armyworms feed in the whorl, giving the plant a buckshot appearance. Refuge acreage or conventional corn is at most risk, McClintock said. Planting Bt corn with above-ground stacked traits is the best management tool. Good weed control is also important, especially grasses, a favorite target for armyworms.

“We’re not going to recommend insecticide applications unless we find armyworms in conventional corn or early in the season on traited corn,” McClintock said. “If corn was planted in late May or early June, and we have a bad enough infestation, we can see them clip off those plants and damage young stands.”

Cotton

In cotton, early damage will be in the squares and blooms; later, the worms will actually bore into the bolls. If blooms are being clipped or squares being damaged, treatment may be necessary.

“Typically, there are other insects, such as thrips, that can be a problem around the same time,” McClintock said. “Armyworms usually aren’t a big threat in cotton because they’re being taken care of with other insecticide applications.” 

Forages

Because pastures and hay fields usually aren’t scouted on a reg­ular basis, fall armyworm infestations can sneak up on forage producers, McClintock said.

“Usually when we find out there’s armyworms—at least in the first pasture of the season—it’s too late for that field,” he said. “Extra bird activity can be an indicator, but the worms have to be a certain size before they’re going to attract the birds. And they will have done a lot of feeding by then.”

When scouting pastures, avoid the hottest part of the day, McClintock said. Treatment is necessary when four half-grown or larger worms are found per square foot.

“Scouting will require more than just walking and looking down,” he said. “Get down on your hands and knees and move some residue around to look for them.”

McClintock said many growers question whether army­worm-infested forages should be sprayed or cut for hay. Factors such as worm size, population and how quickly hay can be harvested and stored must be considered.

“If we’re at or close to threshold and know it’s going to be more than five days from the time we put the hay down to baling it, you probably need to make the application, wait the preharvest interval and then cut it,” McClintock said. “The worms will continue to feed while the forage is mowed for hay, and damage to the regrowth can set back the longevity of your stand.”

Rice

McClintock said research finds rice can withstand quite a bit of armyworm defoliation without yield loss. Young rice, unless it’s completely defoliated, tends to regrow with no significant setbacks.

“Similar to wheat, if heads are being clipped and armyworms are present, I’d recommend an insecticide application,” he said.

Soybeans

While fall armyworms can damage soybeans at any stage, later-planted and double-crop fields are most at risk, McClintock said. Early infestations can lead to stand loss, and the pests tend to clip blooms and pods, which can reduce yield.

“During the vegetative stage, the threshold for treatment is 10 to 50 worms per 25 sweeps,” McClintock said. “During the reproductive stages, if blooms are being clipped, application is required. Typically, this can be done when we’re spraying for other lepidoptera like podworms and stink bugs.”

Wheat

Fall armyworms can be the biggest threat to early-planted wheat in September and October when the plants are young, McClintock said.

“When larvae are small, damage will show up as a window­pane effect,” he said. “Excessive damage won’t be obvious until the worms get bigger, which is obviously too late. If more than 25% of the field has that windowpane damage, that’s when we would make an application. In late spring or early summer, if heads are being clipped, and we find armyworms, we also need to spray.”

While no one yet knows if fall armyworms will be such an extensive threat this year, McClintock encourages growers and crop scouts to be on the lookout for a repeat attack. The Uni­versity of Missouri sets out traps every year to track fall army­worm movement and population. Counts can be found online at ipm.missouri.edu/pestmonitoring/faw/.

“From an agronomy standpoint, we’re trying to be proactive and not reactive when it comes to fall armyworms,” McClintock said. “I think it’s important to make sure we’re at threshold before spraying to help manage resistance. At the same time, we want to be vigilant with our scouting and be prepared to treat if necessary. If we start seeing fall armyworms, they’re going to keep coming, and they’re not going to disappear tomorrow.”

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