Tara Sweetnam is a first-year student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Submitted photo.

Veterinary medicine right fit for Manitoba student

Tara Sweetnam was 12 years old the first time that she watched a veterinarian perform an embryo transfer at her family’s dairy farm near Winkler, Man. As the practitioner transferred fertilized embryos into the reproductive tract of her favourite cow, Sweetnam was awestruck by the process.

By Lynne Gunville

“Through working and interacting with veterinarians at the farm, I had always enjoyed that veterinarians could improve health outcomes of sick animals and work with my parents to help improve the overall herd health of our dairy farm,” says Sweetnam, a first-year student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

“From that point on, I wanted to be a veterinarian.”

Sweetnam had started feeding calves and milking cows at a young age, but animal health hadn’t been a big concern for her until she joined the South-East 4-H Dairy club and began raising her own 4-H heifer. She became focused on ensuring that her calf was thriving and doing well.

As she showed and judged dairy cattle through 4-H, Sweetnam developed a real appreciation for quality cattle. For several years, she competed on Team Manitoba, exhibiting, fitting and judging dairy cattle at the annual Western Canadian Classic (WCC) Junior Dairy Show — a competitive show open to 4-H club members.

“I became involved with showing as my father is an official judge and grew up showing in Ireland,” says Sweetnam. “Although the WCC highlights some of the best heifers, showmen and fitters in the West, the main highlight of the show is the connections made across Western Canada of similar interests and backgrounds within the dairy industry.”

Sweetnam maintained those connections while attending the University of Saskatchewan (USask) where she completed a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree. By majoring in animal sciences, she was able to obtain the prerequisites needed for veterinary medicine while expanding her knowledge in food animal production.

She also stayed connected to the dairy industry by joining and eventually becoming president of the USask Dairy Team. She and her teammates were thrilled to attend the 2019 World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.

“It was an amazing experience to see the most up-to-date technology in the dairy industry alongside some of the best cattle,” says Sweetnam, who toured several dairy farms in the Madison area during her visit.

In addition to working with dairy cattle, Sweetnam volunteered at the Morden Veterinary Clinic and worked as a summer intern at Alta Genetics’ Doug Blair Sire Production and Housing Center in Crossfield, Alta. She also assisted with research at the USask Rayner Research and Teaching Facility in Saskatoon.

While Sweetnam remained focused on becoming a veterinarian, she also strived to maintain her connection to family and to the Irish heritage that her parents had left behind when they immigrated to Canada in 2000.

“Wanting to maintain a cultural connection to Ireland, they had me learn Irish dance and fiddle at a young age,” Sweetnam says. “What I most enjoy is the lively and upbeat rhythms of Irish jigs which seem to have an almost electric effect amongst people — getting them to move to the rhythm.”

In August 2021, Sweetnam began her veterinary studies at the WCVM. While her favourite subjects so far have been disease ecology and immunology, she’s enjoying all opportunities to learn more hands-on clinical skills while building connections with classmates and faculty.

For now, her future plans involve working in a large animal practice somewhere on the Prairies. She also anticipates increasing her knowledge in preventive medicine and embryo transfer, and she ultimately hopes to operate her own farm some day.

“Coming from a farm and connecting with others within the agricultural industry has allowed me to gain a producer’s perspective in many situations, and that can ease communication and understanding,” says Sweetnam.

“What I enjoy most is when all calves in a calf barn are doing well … eager to suckle, with their ears up and interested. It is a satisfying feeling to see them grow and thrive into heifers, and then into milking cows.”