'17 Pork Masters: A career with pigs was never in doubt for Max Rodibaugh

posted on Monday, May 22, 2017 in Swine Health Services News

A career without pigs was never a consideration for Max Rodibaugh, DVM. As the son of Jack Rodibaugh, an Indiana seedstock producer who raised the 1969 International Livestock Exposition Grand Champion barrow Jasper that became the subject of an Maxeducational movie and later a model for a Breyer toy, Max Rodibaugh likely inherited his passion for pigs.

A strong work ethic and thirst for knowledge were also deep-rooted in Jack and Emily’s seven children while growing up on a grain and livestock farm with no television in rural Rensselaer, Ind. The days were filled with chores, stacks of books and radio.

After establishing he was not a worthy tractor driver, Max Rodibaugh was often assigned as the pigs’ caretaker — an assignment he gladly accepted and which served as the foundation for his current career.

During his junior years, he started performing necropsies on the farm’s pigs before he knew what he was actually doing. Yet, the desire to learn more about the inner workings of pigs actually sparked his veterinary medicine career path.

After earning an undergraduate and veterinary degree from Purdue, Rodibaugh saw being a swine practitioner was the right fit, particularly since his early mentor John Coltraine, DVM, introduced him to a herd health management style versus the fire engine type of practice. In 1977, Rodibaugh joined Coltraine at his practice, getting the rare opportunity to mainly focus on pigs.

Unfortunately, Coltraine left this world a year later, which pushed Rodibaugh to make hard decisions about his future: Buy this practice or move on once the practice was sold. Taking a leap of faith, Rodibaugh started a swine-only practice in 1980 with his wife, Carol, managing the office in an old fast-food building in Frankfort, Ind.

A swine-only practice was rare. At the time, many veterinarians had started swine-specific practice with a larger veterinary practice, but according to 2008 Pork Master Larry Rueff, DVM, Rodibaugh was among four in the United States brave enough to be swine-exclusive as an independent practitioner. “In April of that year, hogs hit $29, and I thought this was really smart,” he jokes.

At first operating the practice on a shoestring budget, he later was able to bring on a partner — Jon Kober, DVM — who left to start his own swine-only practice in Michigan. Today, Rodibaugh and his partner, Jeffery Harker, DVM, have clients from 4-Hers and small show pig herds to 10,000-sow farms.

Over the years, hog operations in the area have changed from all family farrow-to-finish operations to a mix of family farms with more contract growers with finishing units. The close proximity to packing plants keeps hogs in the area, but the size of the hog farms and the segregation of production have changed the business. “I’ve always said we need to be open to changes in the industry,” states Rodibaugh.

The latest chapter of change for his practice was prompted as a result of a client of AMVC who purchased an Indiana farm several years ago. Rodibaugh was asked to assist with veterinary services. Thinking about the future, Rodibaugh’s firm recently joined the AMVC team, ensuring his clients will always have access to outstanding swine health care.

What keeps you going?
Veterinary medicine is not an easy gig. The long hours and the mental fatigue can take its toll over the years, but after 40 years Rodibaugh still looks forward to working with his clients every day.

“I just love the work. I like the problem-solving aspect of veterinary medicine,” he says with a smile. “We have a relationship with these people for years. You get to know them as a family, and I enjoy that.”

Rodibaugh credits his strong work ethic to his dad. He taught his children to work hard, and nothing came easy.

Still, the biggest driving force for Rodibaugh is his clients. His team is here to serve them. It is important to assist them to do their best in taking care of the pigs and also to be profitable.

“I am always hoping my clients are doing great because if they do great, then we will do fine,” notes Rodibaugh. “I admire them tremendously for what they go through. In general, the people in America do not understand what the individual farmer has to put up with. It is pretty amazing.”

Going the extra mile for the client is a priority for Rodibaugh, and it is apparent watching him interact with his clients. On a walk through the barn during a routine visit with clients Garrett and Nathan Davis, Rodibaugh’s high level of care for pigs and people was evident.

The Davis brothers, who are in their 20s, also took a leap of faith and started real pig farming on their own with mentors, including Rodibaugh, by their side. Their experience in hog farming was founded in the outdoor operation of their grandfather, but now they are calling the shots.

“Max gives us good advice beyond how to medicate and animal health basics. He is the first person we call when we have a problem,” says Nathan during the routine visit to the farm.

Rodibaugh has a soft spot for the young farmers just starting out. His personal experience in swine production shows as he shares practical tips along with regular veterinary oversight. As he walks through the barns, he seeks teachable moments to fine-tune the Davis’ management of the herd.

He also is their biggest advocate, cheering them on with each accomplishment. The Davis brothers had never bred sows via artificial insemination. Their mentors advise them to synch 60 gilts each week and hope for 80% conception rate. In their first breeding season, the weekly rate is north of 90%, with the last two weeks at a substantial 97%. One more solid week and Rodibaugh owes them pizza.

Rodibaugh says the refreshing part about working with the Davis brothers on this new adventure is the herd and producer are starting at ground zero. They are more adaptable to change and actually listen to the seasoned professionals for sound advice. And their enthusiasm for real pig farming is contagious.

Advice to pig farmers
While Rodibaugh appreciates the drive of the young hog farmers like the Davis brothers, he realizes each farm and each pig farmer is different. He often has to remind himself to listen better and ask more questions. “As veterinarians, we take our cues from them. So if they do not seem engaged in the process, we may move on quickly.”

In general, Rodibaugh says getting the most from a veterinarian’s visit begins with clear communication. He offers these tips:
Enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy pig farming, then get out. It is really that simple.
Ask questions. It is OK to ask why the veterinarian is recommending something. Speak up. If you are unhappy with the way a veterinarian handles something, then let him or her know that.
Ask for second opinions. It is acceptable to ask for a second opinion.
Be ready. Accurate records assist the veterinarian in making sound and more-informed decisions. In order to get more from a veterinarian’s visit, prepare questions before the visit.
Be proactive in whole management of the pig. You need to have an active role in your marketing plan. Many grew up in an age when Dad always made money on the pig. That era is gone. You can be competitive no matter the system you manage if you are actively engaged.

Keeping up with the changes can be daunting, especially trying to do the best for the client and pigs. From a swine health standpoint, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome is the veterinarian’s biggest challenge and most frustrating disease.

“We think we have a solution for PRRS, then it comes back to bite us,” says Rodibaugh.

Although Indiana was among the first states to break with porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, dealing with the disease, in general, was easier than managing PRRS. The death loss of PEDV was stressful, but since the virus was close to transmissible gastroenteritis, the groundwork for management protocol was already established. On the other hand, PRRS management tends to change as new strains develop. “We set up the protocols for PEDV, they worked relatively well and then we were over it. It was not like PRRS that has a long ‘tail’ of negative effects on your production,” states Rodibaugh.

Abiding with new regulations for animal health and consumers’ demands concerning animal welfare can be tough, particularly for the smaller producer. As the veterinarian, it is essential to assist the client through those changes.

Even though new regulations bring on new management practices on the farm, it is not always a bad thing. For instance, Rodibaugh says the new antibiotic rule does encourage the farm and the veterinarian to routinely review the animal health program more thoroughly. “It forces us all to look at what we are doing and what we should change. That is good that has come out of that,” he notes.

Overall, Rodibaugh has seen a natural reduction in the amount of antibiotic use on the farm through his career. Yet, it is a crucial health tool the hog producer and veterinarian cannot afford to lose, especially as a preventive and control measure.

He likes to compare it to children entering day care for the first time. The children tend to bring every sickness home in the first year. The difference is for pigs this happens every week because pigs move in and out every week. Judicious use of antibiotics to prevent a serious disease outbreak can reduce mortality and additional antibiotic use.

Still, every animal health program needs self-evaluation for both vaccination and antibiotic use. Rodibaugh firmly believes veterinarians owe that to their clients. He says, “We need to make sure we are practicing the best medicine that we can.”

The future of the pork industry lies in the ability to keep every segment profitable.

“I think it is going to be continuous coordination of the whole chain. I don’t think we can have any one segment of the chain guaranteed a profit at the expense of another,” explains Rodibaugh. “I think we need to figure out somehow how to make it equitable, so that risks and profits are shared.”

Word to fellow veterinarians
There is a great opportunity in the swine business. However, if an individual is new to the business, Rodibaugh suggests being flexible in geographic preference.

Overall, it is important to see the pigs. It is the guiding principle for Rodibaugh. It is easy to get caught up in the paperwork, but the barn is where real answers lie. No matter how many photos or reports he receives from the hog farmer it does not equally replace Rodibaugh seeing, feeling and smelling the pigs in the barn. “Since diagnosing disease is a skill for which veterinarians are uniquely trained, we need to make certain we ‘see the pigs’ in order to achieve the best diagnosis,” he stresses. 

Rodibaugh also suggests taking full advantage of the small but tight-knit community of swine veterinarians. As a past president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, he knows the value of an organization that can provide education and a supportive group of individuals.

Before officially starting as a veterinarian, Rodibaugh married his best friend and wife of 40 years, Carol. Once the kids arrived on the scene, Carol stayed home with the kids and did the heavy lifting at home on a daily basis. Together they raised three children — Paul, Todd and Leslie. All three children are married and reside in Indiana. The couple look forward to watching the four, and soon to be fifth, grandchildren grow — most likely the only reason he will slow down from the pig business in the near future.

As Rodibaugh gets older, he realizes the real value in finding a work-home balance. The combination of being passionate about your work and the long hours involved in being a large-animal veterinarian means that over the years he has clocked many hours on the job. However, he did make the kids’ sporting events and school activities, which are equally important.

What’s it mean to be a Master?
Rodibaugh joins the numerous Pork Masters who are humbly honored by the title, and starts to list in his head fellow peers who deserve the honor instead.

“It is a huge honor to be considered,” he says. “I have been fortunate enough to work with really great people, with the chance to do something I really love and always the opportunity to continue to learn.

“The chance to work with enthusiastic producers like the Davis brothers is the real reward. The Master title is an honor, but working with people like that day in and day out is the most gratifying reward.”

Full credit to National Hog Farmer and Cheryl Day. For the full story and pictures, click here.


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