Amber Itle got her start in animal health as a 5-year-old holding cow tails for her father, Joe, a veterinarian and dairyman.
She was destined to be a dairy farmer or large-animal vet. She chose veterinarian school. She went from Pennsylvania farm girl to Ivy Leaguer to treating livestock in her adopted state of Washington. After nine years in private practice in Whatcom County, she became a field vet for the state Department of Agriculture in 2013 and was recently promoted to assistant state veterinarian.
Itle, 41, has kept her field vet position in northwest Washington. She spent a recent Monday testing chickens for bird flu at a livestock market. On other days that week she was in Olympia at the department’s headquarters, where the only bovine is an oddity, a stuffed two-headed calf collected by Itle during her career and that she has hanging in an office.
Sitting in that office, she said she misses being in the field.
“Nobody thinks they’re going to grow up to be a regulatory vet,” she said. “My best work is done on tailgates, not the office.”
She has taken on a job that will test her communication skills in both settings. As assistant state veterinarian, Itle leads the department’s animal disease traceability program. She will spearhead the department’s push to fit every cow in Washington with a radio-frequency identification device, commonly referred to as RFID tags.
The state’s cattlemen do not unanimously support tracking every cow electronically. Itle said she is ready to present the arguments for RFID tags, but that ultimately it will be up to producers to embrace it, or not.
“I’m not going to drag people kicking and screaming to the water trough,” Itle said. “But I think they’re missing an opportunity.”
According to the Washington agriculture department, only 5 percent of the state’s beef cows now have RFID tags. Some 80 percent of the dairy cows do, but they are at only 40 percent of the dairies.
Itle, along with her boss, State Veterinarian Brian Joseph, will have to persuade farmers that electronic tags are in their economic interest, said Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon.
“She’s got the right background as a vet and farm girl,” he said. “She has a good way of talking to producers.”
Itle grew up on the family’s 200-cow dairy in Loretto, Pa. The dairy processes and delivers its milk and milk from neighboring dairies. The dairy has gone by the name Vale Wood Farms since 1933, but Itles have been farming in Loretto far longer. Two brothers, Swiss immigrants John and Joseph Itle — then spelled “Itel” — came to America in 1816, according to the dairy’s website. John obtained 5 acres in Loretto in 1841 and began the family farm. The farm has grown to about 500 acres and still includes the original five.
Itle said she considered a career on the farm. But other family members held down the jobs, and she was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She credits her father with inspiring her. “I was really motivated by the passion he has,” she said.
She said that she and her husband, Jason Babcock, also a Pennsylvania native, were drawn to Washington’s outdoor activities such as skiing and mountain biking.
Not an attraction, but notable and relevant to Itle’s position: Washington was the first state to have a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow.”
The 6 1/2-year-old Holstein was slaughtered on Dec. 9, 2003. A laboratory in England confirmed on Christmas Day that the animal, which had entered the food supply, was diseased. It took a week to trace the cow back to its birthplace, a farm in Alberta, Canada. Itle said the goal is to accomplish that task in a couple of hours.
The state records cattle movements through brand inspections and public auctions, but metal tags require writing down numbers on paper, mailing in the paperwork and typing the information into a database. The department says having that information electronically scanned would keep the database up to date and minimize the spread and economic damage of a disease outbreak.
“It’s an insurance program for the producers,” Itle said.
The Cattle Producers of Washington opposes mandatory RFID tags. The group has several objections. The reservations include the costs of scanning equipment, the durability of electronic tags and the potential for revealing propriety information.
The group also says that because the department has not presented a plan for tagging all cows, ranchers don’t know what they’re getting into if they support interim steps the department has proposed to replace some metal tags with RFIDs. The Washington Cattlemen’s Association supports the interim steps, but has not taken a position on fitting all cows with RFIDs.
Itle said the transition to birth to slaughter individual electronic identification may take a decade.
“We can’t do it without industry,” she said. “The last thing I want to is to force people to do something.”
Position: Washington assistant state veterinarian
Education: Bachelor’s degree in animal science from Penn State; doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine; master’s degree in animal welfare from the University of British Columbia.
Family: Husband Jason Babcock, director of the Whatcom Community College Learning Center in the Mathematics Department. They have three children, ages 2, 5 and 7.
Background: Grew up on the family’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania.