IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A proposed center at Iowa State University would be the first in the nation to give veterinarians hands-on training on how to keep hogs healthy in the pork production chain, university officials said Tuesday.

If approved by the Iowa Board of Regents on Thursday, the university says the Swine Medicine Education Center would attract veterinary students and practicing veterinarians from across North America interested in specializing in swine and animals raised for food.

The center would partner with a large veterinary practice that owns a pork production company that would provide a site with 5,000 sows where students could get hands-on experience.

In short, intense training sessions, students would learn to collect blood and saliva samples from pigs, evaluate deaths and analyze pig behavior and health among a large population, said Locke Karriker, an ISU associate professor who would be the center's director. Instead of learning these skills in a lecture or a classroom like they might in other programs, students would have direct access to live animals, he said.

The center also would disseminate the latest research on issues like food safety and disease prevention and be the first of its kind in swine medicine nationally, Karriker said. Other schools have had success with a similar approach in dairy medicine, he said.

"It's going to make Iowa a hub for some of the best science around the world as it relates to pigs and pork and also a destination for people who are involved in those activities, whether it's from a public health perspective, an environmental perspective or an animal security perspective," he said. "Our overarching goal is to try and get the very best and most valuable scientific evidence into the hands of people who can apply it to the greatest benefit of pigs and people."

The location makes sense since Iowa is the nation's top pork producing state, with thousands of operations that raise about 30 million hogs in any given year.

The proposal comes as many of the nation's 28 veterinary colleges shift their focus away from swine production medicine because of dwindling student interest, tight budgets and the concentration of the industry in a handful of states. Coupled with a wave of retirements in the field, there is a projected shortage of swine production veterinarians.

AMVC, a veterinary practice in western Iowa that owns one of the nation's largest pork producers, has agreed to help support the center, perhaps by building classrooms and housing and providing access to swine facilities in Audobon, said Daryl Olsen, managing partner of the clinic. He said details would need to be finalized after the regents approve the center, which he said would provide training in critical areas like biosecurity, food safety and the environment.

"I think today it's probably more important than any time that agribusiness and academics work together to enhance the educational opportunities for students," he said. "It's a better opportunity for students to get the practical experience they need."

That real-world training is critical for students before they join the industry, where stakes are high because of the potential economic risks involved, said Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians in Perry, Iowa.

Without veterinary colleges replacing their retiring swine experts, students who are interested in the field have few mentors or opportunities to get critical training, and the center could fill that void, he said.

"This is going to provide a resource not only for veterinary students in Iowa but also students from other states who are interested in swine medicine and looking for the opportunity to improve their skills and knowledge in this area," he said. "This type of innovative program is what's needed."

The center, which would have a director, a clinical swine veterinarian and a program manager, would cost $195,000 to run in its first year, nearly half of which would come from the pork industry.

Iowa State is already home to the U.S. Pork Center of Excellence, a national center established in 2005 to provide pork producers with research, information and a trained work force. That center allows undergraduates at schools across the U.S. to earn a minor in swine science through distance education.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.