Rancher-vet passes on her knowledge

Lamont, Wash., veterinarian Jill Swannack, president of the Washington State Sheep Producers, manages a lamb as she looks to Washington State University veterinary students during a lambing school on her ranch March 12.

LAMONT, Wash. — Jill Swannack knew she wanted to be a veterinarian when she was 7 years old.

“Somebody said to me, ‘You can be anything you want to be,’ and I looked at them and said, ‘I’ll be a veterinarian,’” she said. “And that was it.”

Swannack received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Washington State University in 1991 and has been practicing in the Sprague-Lamont area since 1992. She treats large and small animals.

Swannack and her husband, Art, raise 900 sheep on their ranch. She was elected president of the Washington State Sheep Producers in October 2014 and is the first female leader of the organization that she is aware of.

Swannack said she would like to include more smaller and non-traditional sheep producers in the organization.

“As an industry we represent the large producers well,” she said. “(Smaller producers are) where the industry is really growing.”

The organization offers schools on lambing, held on Swannack’s ranch, and on health screening and shearing, as part of an emphasis on education, mentoring and community involvement.

“It’s passing on skills,” Swannack said. “You can watch a video and you can read about it, but until you get your hands on it and do it, it’s just not the same thing.”

Are there many female large-animal vets?

“There aren’t many large animal vets,” she said with a laugh. Swannack grew up on a Monroe, Wash., dairy farm, and was surrounded by a variety of animals. Swannack blames the low vet numbers on a lack of knowledge, since few people are born in rural environments today and grow up around livestock.

“They’re willing to work rurally, but they don’t want to do cattle,” she said. “I tell (students), ‘You can’t work rurally and not do cattle. Most people have been around cats and dogs, the kids that love horses, they bond with that animal. With cattle, you’ve almost got to come from where it was part of your livelihood to have true experiences with them.”

She expects the number of large-animal vets to remain low.

But there is hope for the future: Her daughter, a high school senior, recently decided she also wants to be a veterinarian.

“More than anything, I want my children to do what interests them,” Swannack said. “I counsel all my kids that because we are a farm family, we are a minority, and that is a huge strength in the job market.”

Lamont area resident Harry Harder said Swannack has helped mentor him as he started a sheep flock over the last two years.

“You can ask her anything you want and she will answer to the best of her ability,” he said. “Working with her is like working with a close friend or family, even.”

Louise Belsby ranches south of Cheney. Swannack is her veterinarian.

“I have rolled in the mud with Jill pulling a calf — I have never seen anybody work so hard to keep a calf alive, going through a tough birth,” Belsby said. “She’s not just a vet, she’s also a producer, and I think that makes a big difference.”

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