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'I Get the Ups and Downs': Wisconsin Veterinarian Whose Family Lost Its Dairy Herd Sees the Farm Crisis Daily

Veterinarian Lindley Reilly is shown at work at Gasser Farms LLC in Belgium. Reilly checked on the breeding and pregnancies of about 50 cows during her visit to the third-generation family farm. She is wearing a viewer for an ultrasound device. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Veterinarian Lindley Reilly is shown at work at Gasser Farms LLC in Belgium. Reilly checked on the breeding and pregnancies of about 50 cows during her visit to the third-generation family farm. She is wearing a viewer for an ultrasound device. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Belgium - Lindley Reilly makes her way through the dairy crisis, one cow at a time.

She's 32 years old, a food animal veterinarian, devoted to her profession, her farmers and her cows.

That means, on a recent day, that she’s working with the Gasser brothers, Luke, Max and Jed, at their farm overlooking Interstate 43 in Ozaukee County. The young men have expanded their parents’ operation — adding to the herd, building barns, pouring cement and milking cows. 

Four years ago, the brothers matched up with Reilly, bonding over Eric Church country songs, Holstein cows and modern dairy methods.

The Gasser family had used Reilly's clinic for years but didn't have a consistent veterinarian. The brothers needed someone who understood their ambition to grow the herd, from around 40 animals to the current 240.

"She comes to the farm, gets thrown in with a group of young guys who have the same goals," Luke Gasser said. Now, they rely on her. 

Dressed in pink overalls, with goggles shielding her eyes, Reilly pulls on a disposable plastic sleeve that runs from her left hand up to her shoulder. Then she gets down to work, performing pregnancy checks with a portable ultrasound machine, going from cow to cow, 48 in all.

Amid the muck and grime, Reilly smiles. She’s right where she wants to be.

"Even though I earned my doctorate," she said, "I’m just Lindley."

Veterinarian Lindley Reilly, right, and Quonset Farms owner Ben Hesselink talk before she starts fertility checks on about 80 cows at the farm in Oostburg. Reilly is wearing a viewer for an ultrasound device. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Veterinarian Lindley Reilly, right, and Quonset Farms owner Ben Hesselink talk before she starts fertility checks on about 80 cows at the farm in Oostburg. Reilly is wearing a viewer for an ultrasound device. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019. 

Unpaid Bills, and Patience to a Point

When hard times hit Wisconsin dairy farmers, veterinarians felt the impact too.

Amid the belt-tightening and tough conversations, more than 1,200 dairy farms have closed over the past 21 months, the fallout from low milk prices.

Vets like Reilly know that even in better times, cash flow fluctuates through the year as farmers buy fertilizer and seed in the spring and catch up in the fall.

They know that bills may go unpaid for a few months, so they work with the farmers who are under financial stress. Even then, some farmers fall further and further behind.

"It’s such a Catch-22," Reilly said. "You want to do right by these cows. And these cows, we’re in the business to help. But we also run a business."

She is one of four partners at Cedar Grove Veterinary Services, which was founded in 1945. Around 60% of the practice involves small animals, such as family pets. The rest is dairy.

Reilly, who is single and lives in Waldo, still owes money on her student debt. She graduated in 2013 from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine with around $100,000 in loans.

She has made the monthly payments for six years, and her goal is to pay the loan off in another six. 

No one likes to talk about it, let alone do it, but Reilly has had to cut off farmers who can't pay the bills. It's a wrenching experience.

"Because in your heart, you know if you're not going there, who's helping those cattle out?" Reilly said.

The struggle weighs on her.

"You didn’t sign up to be a veterinarian to be a bill collector," she said. "You signed up to do good."

Luke Gasser, foreground, guides veterinarian Lindley Reilly to the next cow to be examined. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Luke Gasser, foreground, guides veterinarian Lindley Reilly to the next cow to be examined. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019. 

Wearing a Lot of Hats

The work can be tough, dangerous even, maneuvering around 1,500-pound animals. Reilly is just 5-foot-6, about as tall as the animals. A few years back, Reilly broke her right foot when she slipped on ice in a pen. She was back on the job a week later.

Midnight calls are rare. But when an emergency call comes in, she gets up and is ready to go.

A mentor and friend works at a nearby clinic and they often talk about the stresses of the profession.

"There are some days being a vet is just hard," she said.

To relieve stress, she runs. She likes to cook and bake and will sometimes bring farmers cookies. Riding along the road in her pickup truck, going from farm to farm, she is part of what knits together the communities she serves. Her territory runs through northern Ozaukee County, southern Sheboygan County and parts of Washington County.

In addition to looking after the health of a herd, Reilly works side by side with farmers, discussing the cleanliness of a farm, how it is run and — especially now — its financial security. "You wear a lot of hats," she said.

If a farmer wants to shut down the herd, a veterinarian will have a discussion on how to accomplish that, including how to preserve the health of the animals before a sale or relocation.

Lindley Reilly cleans up after a farm visit. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Lindley Reilly cleans up after a farm visit. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Reilly said ideally she likes to have a year or two to aid a farmer who is closing down a dairy operation. Then, the farmer can plan on where the herd will go and what will happen to the land.

"Most of the time you hope that it can be planned over six months," she said. "The harder thing is when you have to do it real quickly, within a few weeks."

She has also had to work with farmers as they transition from their old lives in dairy to new lives working in a factory, landscaping or trucking.

"Obviously I'm not a counselor or jobs adviser but because you become friends with them you know their families, lives, interests and hobbies," she said. "You're one of the friends they ask, ‘What should I do?’ ”

She said that in such cases, she tries to sit down with the farmer, ask what they're good at, what sort of job they might want to work.

"That's a heartbreaking aspect of this," she said. "All these guys are your friends, you want to help them. A lot of these farmers have been farmers for 30-plus years. They haven't thought about another career, or written a résumé or gone out on a job interview."

Reilly internalizes the problems her farmers face and feels a "moral obligation" to keep helping.

"You think about the guy who can't pay the feed bill," she said. "You think about it all night."

When farmers sell, she often wonders if she could have done more.

A Switch in Direction

 

Reilly understands better than most the difficulty of making a living milking cows.

Her father was a fifth-generation dairy farmer in Cascade in central Sheboygan County. She watched as her parents, Ed and Donna Reilly, scrapped together money to purchase a farm of their own and then make it run.

And she grew up around the animals, performing chores before going off to school.

Initially, she thought she wanted to be a science teacher. But as a high school freshman, she got involved with FFA — the Future Farmers of America —  and her path was set.

She decided to combine the culture of hard farm work with veterinary medicine.

At UW-Madison, she received her undergraduate degree in dairy science and then went on to vet school for a rigorous four-year program.

After graduating, Reilly got a job at a clinic in western Wisconsin. It was trial by fire, getting to know farmers, taking her classroom learning into the field.

She recalled one somber morning when she delivered a calf that wasn't alive. The farmer yelled at her for 20 minutes, telling her she was incompetent.

"It just destroys everything that you thought you were doing right," she said. "I just remember that day because I came back to the clinic and I broke down."

She would encounter times far more difficult.

It was just four months after she began working that her father Ed was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"I quit my job and made the decision that being a farmer at that point was far more important than being a veterinarian," she said.

Reilly rushed back home, along with her younger brother, to take over the farming operation and to spend time with the family.

"My dad was amazing," she said. "Great farmer, great businessman."

He was the kind of man who kept his emotions to himself, but she knew he was proud that she had become a vet. He was angry with her for leaving the profession.

"He thought I made a poor choice," she said. "He said that I should have stayed a veterinarian. But how could I turn my back on my family?"

Reilly made things right, though. She showed him that she could run the farm and do it well with her brother. Shortly before her father died, Reilly landed a job with Cedar Grove Veterinary Services.

Surrounded by his family, Ed Reilly died Feb. 13, 2015.

He was 54.

Honoring a Memory

Reilly and her brother, Bryan, kept the dairy operation going for another year after their father's death. But it wasn't sustainable. She was working 14 hours a day on two jobs and the dairy industry was sliding.

In 2016, the family made a difficult decision, selling the dairy herd.

"I thought I had severely undersold our cattle," she said. "I was so mad at myself because this was my parents' retirement plan. And I didn't think I got what we deserved. Looking back on that, with hindsight, we actually sold out at a decent time. We got decent prices, considering what people are selling for now."

The family got an average of $1,500 per head, she said, when a few years earlier they would have gotten an average of $1,800 per cow.

Today, prices have fallen further. The same herd might bring around $1,200 per head.

She and her family had to deal with other health issues. In the wake of her father's cancer, Reilly had her DNA tested and it was discovered she had a breast cancer gene mutation.

In 2017, she underwent a double mastectomy. And while she was recovering, her mother, Donna, suffered a minor stroke. Her mother is now fully recovered and working.

Those experiences had a powerful effect on Reilly's life and outlook. When faced with a crisis, she confronted it head on, showing courage and resiliency.

Her empathy comes through as she talks with her farmers.

When they come to her with problems, and they do, she can relate to them.

"Working with these farmers now with what they're going through, I get the ups and downs," she said. "I get the decisions they make. Should I sell the farm? What should I do when someone's sick. And I think that makes me somewhat more approachable to them just because they know my history."

"And some of them knew my dad," she said. "So it has been hard and it has helped."

She couldn't save her father from his illness. But she does her best to help others.

"My biggest thing is that he never got to see the veterinarian I became," she said. "So that's why I try to honor him every day."