You’re in for a wait on the National Western animal well-being team

vet student and goat
DVM students assist Stock Show veterinarians with drug testing winning goats at the 2017 National Western Stock Show in Denver.

Waiting for a goat to pee in a cup is like waiting for a pot of water to boil: The more attentive you are, the longer it takes.

Ask Summer Marsh.

The Colorado State University veterinary student trailed a meat goat named Blacktail for 73 minutes before the animal finally obliged, filling a 4-ounce sample cup to prove he hadn’t been polluted with performance-enhancing drugs and would produce a wholesome carcass.

Marsh, a second-year student in the CSU Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Program, grew up in suburban Denver with suburban pets – dogs, cats, parakeets, hamsters – and had very little experience with livestock. Much less goats in the pageantry of the National Western Stock Show.

Now, as a volunteer with the National Western’s Well-Being Test Unit, Marsh and fellow veterinary students were watchdogs for show ethics and food safety, collecting urine samples from market animals for drug testing. The testing flags possible cheats at the highly competitive livestock show and ensures that meat entering the human food supply is free from prohibited drug residues.

“I really enjoy being in this environment and seeing how it works behind the scenes,” said Marsh, who volunteered with three other CSU veterinary students on Jan. 11. “It’s really exciting for me to be here.”

As for the mundane task of waiting for a goat to urinate, “How many people can say they’ve done that, right?” Marsh asked.

The willing attitude served her well.

Trailing a champion

Blacktail, named for his black-tipped tail, is shown by Tara Hummel of Illinois.

Marsh waited after Blacktail was named 2017 Reserve Champion Heavyweight in the Junior Market Goat Show. She waited during the drive of champions, as the Boer was evaluated among the top six meat goats in the show. Marsh waited as the judge picked Blacktail, shown by a 15-year-old 4-H’er from Illinois, as Reserve Grand Champion Market Goat. That made the 99-pound beauty the No. 2 meat goat in Denver this year. Marsh then waited as Blacktail was painstakingly posed for a post-show photograph with his young exhibitor, the show judge, Miss Rodeo Colorado, the chairman of the Auction of Junior Livestock Champions, and the president and CEO of the Stock Show.

If at that moment the goat had started to tinkle?

“You ruin the photo,” Marsh said decidedly, waiting several feet away.

“The ultimate photo bomb,” agreed Lauren Bracchi, another CSU veterinary student assisting with urine collection at the Junior Market Goat Show.

“Don’t mind me, I’m just going for the stream of pee,” Marsh said, imagining how she might crash the carefully composed shot in her inelegant orange vest.

But Blacktail didn’t go during the photo shoot. He didn’t go walking back to his pen. He didn’t go while munching a ration of rich grain. He didn’t go as Marsh tired of crouching on her haunches and sat on a folding chair in the goat pen.

Sixty minutes and counting

All market animals winning champion and reserve champion honors at the National Western Stock Show are drug-tested before the Auction of Junior Livestock Champions.

“Is it time?” Marsh asked Blacktail, imploring the wether eye-to-eye.

But it wasn’t time. And it wasn’t time as volunteers joked about giving the goat coffee, sticking his hooves in warm water, or playing watery sounds on their cellphones.

The time finally came after Blacktail arose from a short nap in the wood shavings of his pen: Marsh was there with the cup, caught the requisite sample, high-fived her veterinary buddies, and victoriously marched the warm sample to her team leader.

Dr. Lori Scott, a CSU veterinary alumna from 1988, was sitting at a processing table in the goat barn – also waiting. Blacktail’s sample was the last one delivered by volunteers working the show.

Scott, taking the sample in gloved hands, affixed adhesive bar codes to the cup, verified names and numbers, collected signatures from the exhibitor attesting ownership and fair play, sealed the cup inside two Ziploc bags, and shut the sample inside a padlocked cooler. From there it would go to an analytical laboratory in Wheat Ridge for drug testing that helps ensure the integrity of the show and the food supply.

“We have a huge responsibility because we’re protecting the food chain,” Scott said. “We want to make sure we have a wholesome meat product for consumers.”

For 29 years, Scott and her husband, Mike, have worked as veterinarians at the National Western Stock Show. The couple, owners of nearby North Denver Animal Clinic, care for sick and injured animals during the two-week event. They man livestock sales, which require veterinary oversight for interstate livestock shipment.

On the front lines of food safety

In the National Western stockyards, Dr. Blanca Camacho, a CSU livestock medicine intern, and Katie Gazo, a senior veterinary student, check a bull exhibited by animal-science students.

They also oversee the drug-testing program, which focuses on show ethics and food safety.  Every animal sold during the National Western Auction of Junior Livestock Champions is first tested for drug residues. That’s every champion and reserve champion shown by 4-H and FFA exhibitors in multiple divisions of market beef, swine, lamb and goat shows – or a total of some 200 urine samples collected for mandatory and random testing.

On demanding days, this requires about 50 volunteers at a time working with the Well-Being Test Unit, Scott said.

Each urine sample is pre-screened for as many as 500 substances, depending on the test protocol used. If a sample is flagged as suspicious, it undergoes another round of analysis.

This testing, Scott said, is designed to detect a range of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and performance-enhancing drugs. In some cases, medicine might have been legally and ethically administered for livestock health, but simply didn’t clear the body in the time mandated before slaughter. In other cases, drugs might have been unethically administered in an effort to win.

To put the potential for cheating in perspective, the 2016 grand champion steer sold for $117,000 at the National Western, and the 2016 grand champion goat sold for a record-breaking $40,000, according to records.

Scott and her volunteer team are on hand to ensure compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wholesome Meat Act and the National Show Ring Code of Ethics, among other regulations. If an animal is found in violation, it is expelled from the sale and the exhibitor is banned from the show, among other possible repercussions.

“From about 200 samples collected per year, we usually have a couple that come up suspicious. If it’s a good year, we’re completely clean. If it’s a bad year, we might have six suspicious samples,” Scott said.

“The National Western is at the top of their game,” she added, explaining the effort that goes into testing. “They are the Super Bowl, and they really do care about the animals and the food supply.”

Recruiting livestock veterinarians

As veterinarians for the National Western, Scott and her husband have leadership roles in animal welfare and food safety. Through the Well-Being Test Unit and other avenues, the Scotts also work to recruit aspiring veterinarians into the livestock arena.

“We need livestock veterinarians,” Scott said, “so we’re trying to engage these students to say, ‘It’s cool to be a large-animal veterinarian. We need you.’”

Each year, volunteer veterinary students leave the show with new insights, said Dr. Tim Holt, who leads the CSU livestock field service, based at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“The biggest thing they get is they get to work with the exhibitors,” Holt said. “The students see how hard these livestock producers work, how attached they are to their animals, and how excited they are about students showing interest in livestock medicine.”

That exposure, Holt said, “is a real privilege for the students.”