SALEM — For decades, farmers and ranchers have expressed concern about a shortage of large-animal veterinarians.
The bad news, experts say, is the need persists.
The good news is some programs designed to funnel veterinary students into rural and livestock practices are working — and experts say those models could be adopted nationwide.
“There’s a need for large-animal vets in many places,” said Denise Konetchy, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Idaho.
Experts say the sector with the biggest shortage is the mixed animal category — vets who work with both small companion animals and livestock — in rural communities.
Most students emerge from school with $150,000 or more in debt and choose small-animal work because it pays more than large-animal work: up to $70,000 more annually on average, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Rural veterinary work is difficult, involves long hours and is stressful. Veterinarians often drive long distances to see their “patients” and may be on call seven days a week. According to “Not One More Vet,” a peer support group, stress adds up: One in six veterinarians considers suicide.
Small to mid-sized farms also face an acute veterinarian shortage. So do farmers in more urban areas, according to Dale Moore, director of Washington State University’s Veterinary Extension.
“But large corporate ranches and dairies usually don’t have a problem attracting vets,” said Susan Tornquist, dean of Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
On corporate farms, expectations are high. Daryl Nydam, professor of dairy health and production management at Cornell University, said commercial farm veterinarians need skills in public health, nutrition, animal well-being, food security and environmental impact.
Tornquist said Oregon has poor vet distribution in the large-animal and mixed animal categories, and areas with mostly small to mid-sized farms have fewer farm vets.
Konetchy said farmers feel the shortage acutely in Idaho and Washington state. Bret McNabb, director of the University of California-Davis Large Animal Clinic, said California needs more livestock-oriented vets, but the shortage is not “at crisis level.”
To channel more students into rural practices, schools and agencies have created several innovative programs.
Experts say the USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program is successful.
The fund provides up to $75,000 toward educational debt in exchange for three years of service in any of the 190 USDA-designated shortage areas nationwide.
In 2016, 80% of veterinarians completing their service said they planned to remain in the areas they were serving. Experts advocate increasing the program’s funding, ending the withholding tax on service awards and labeling more places as shortage areas.
This has also been tried at the state level.
In Ohio, according to Fred Gingrich, executive director of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, the state offers loan repayment support for work in shortage areas.
The funding comes from $10 licensing fees the state collects from veterinarians. Critics say the fund takes money from some vets and gives it to others, but advocates say it’s an effective model.
Konetchy of UI and McNabb of UC-Davis said telehealth — which human patients are more frequently using during the COVID-19 outbreak — could also help veterinarians reach rural communities and maintain work-life balance. They agreed telemedicine should supplement in-person visits.
Several professionals said a relatively new field is the role of veterinary technician, or “veterinary nurse” — more qualified than a vet’s assistant, but less than a veterinarian.
According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association’s 2020 report, this growing field could make help more affordable to farms while easing on-call veterinarians’ loads.
McNabb of UC-Davis also said some veterinary hospitals have set up mobile clinics, allowing a hospital based in a neighboring city to reach a community that can’t support a full-time veterinarian.
Many large-animal vets come from a rural or agricultural background, and experts say recruiting future vets directly from rural areas is key.
McNabb said FFA, 4-H and similar programs could help recruit aspiring veterinarians from among their members.
Exposure in college
Some universities require students to work with farm animals during some portion of their studies. Professors across the U.S. told the Capital Press they have seen many students change their focus to large animals after their exposure to livestock.
Experts say what veterinarians need most is community support. They urge farmers to buy medications directly from vets and utilize their services.
“I think farmers are really good at thinking long term. They look down the road as an industry further than most. So I hope they’ll think: If we really want that veterinarian to assist us in our time of need, we need to support them,” said Gingrich, of the bovine practitioners association.