It's customary for time-burnished veterans to “give back” to their profession, but what about fresh-faced hopefuls yet to formally join the working ranks of the trade?

A remarkable group of Iowa State University (ISU) veterinary students is doing just that. They're “paying ahead,” so to speak, by appearing before college undergraduates, high-school students and even junior-high students, to drum up interest in mixed-animal veterinary careers among their youthful audiences.

They do it on a voluntary basis via a program called Veterinary Student Mixed Animal Recruitment Team (V-SMART), begun in 2004. The ISU-Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM)-sanctioned program consists of 85 veterinary students dedicated to addressing “the current and future need for mixed-animal practitioners in Iowa through promoting the benefits of mixed-animal practice and a rural lifestyle to high school and college students.”

A crisis in the making

In a 2003 survey of 325 private-practice veterinarians in Iowa, conducted by the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association and ISU's CVM, 151 described their practice as being 50% companion animal-50% food animal, to predominantly or exclusively food animal. Another 49 classified their practice as mixed, predominantly companion animal.

About 25% of respondents involved in food-animal practice indicated they would require an additional food-animal vet in the next five years. Another 32% indicated they'd need to replace a retiring food animal vet in that same time frame.

“That adds up to a need for 115 food animal vets in Iowa alone over the next five years, and this is estimated to represent only half of Iowa's veterinary practices,” wrote Mike Apley, DVM, in the February 2005 issue of BEEF.

What's more, a national survey conducted of vets in large-animal practice by BEEF magazine in summer 2006 found that 40% indicated concern about a long-run shortfall in large-animal vets. And nearly half were either concerned about a vet shortfall coming soon or believed there was already a shortage.

Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conducted what it considers “the most comprehensive veterinary business study ever conducted on the current and future state of the large-animal vet profession.” AVMA projects demand for food-supply vets will increase 12-13% between now and 2016, but forecasts a 4-5% annual shortfall.

This means that for every 100 food-supply veterinary jobs available, there will be only 96 vets to fill them due to decreasing numbers of vet students, says Lyle Vogel, DVM, director of AVMA's Animal Welfare Division. He says for beef cattle producers, the current vet shortage is in the 5% range. The study projects an 8% growth in demand for beef cattle vets over the next decade.

Starting in Iowa

Those are the statistics that drive V-SMART participation, says Rachel Friedrich, V-SMART president and a third-year vet student from Pierce, NE, where she grew up on a row crop and cattle operation.

“The reason I'm so passionate about this program is that I know I want to go into a mixed-animal practice in a rural area,” Friedrich says. “And there won't be any decrease in the shortage of vets for that practice if we don't do something about it. In 20 years, when I'm hopefully a practitioner/owner and I want to hire an associate, I want there to be someone to hire.”

The V-SMART members visit mostly Iowa high schools, but have also addressed students in Nebraska and South Dakota. The venues for their interactive presentations — more than 9,000 students have been reached in the past two years — are typically ag- and science-based classes, FFA chapters, 4-H clubs and career fairs. “Last year, we did 40-45 presentations. We'll go wherever we're invited,” Friedrich says.

Once there, the volunteers tell students about the benefits and rewards of rural practice, particularly in mixed-animal practice, and the promising outlook for the veterinary profession, Friedrich says. “We also include some statistics on job satisfaction among mixed-animal practitioners in Iowa, insight into a typical day as a mixed-animal practitioner, that sort of thing.”

The student audience is advised on which classes — both in high school and college — will best prepare them for admission into a vet program. Where available, a local veterinarian is included in the appearance.

“And we round it all out with information on typical vet-school activities — what they'll be doing in the program's first year, second year, etc.,” says Jon Nielsen, V-SMART vice president and a third-year vet student from Alta, IA, where he grew up on a hog and cattle operation.

Looking for science interests

Friedrich says the V-SMART volunteers mostly address individual classes — FFA, 4-H “and the more advanced math and science classes in schools that don't have an FFA program; that's a good way to get in front of kids who are science-based.” Besides building awareness and creating interest in the mixed-animal veterinary profession, another big aim is to encourage and convince the students of the attainability of their dreams.

Because it's sometimes difficult for V-SMART members to cover all the school requests for visits, a DVD of the presentation, including an interview with ISU-CVM Dean John Thomson, was produced. The DVD is available for educators and practitioners to exhibit to students in areas that V-SMART members may not be able to reach.

V-SMART also targets current ISU-CVM students, trying to convert them into mixed-animal practice by organizing and sponsoring presentations by mixed-animal practitioners from a variety of backgrounds, as well as organizing field trips to rural clinics. The effort also includes a mentorship program with Iowa vets, including job shadowing and externships.

But as noted earlier, the problem stretches far beyond Iowa. That's why V-SMART volunteers are aiming to spread the ISU program to other campuses. The University of Illinois established a V-SMART chapter in July, while Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Missouri, Minnesota, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Wisconsin and Ohio State have expressed interest in starting chapters, Nielsen says.

“We're looking toward the future,” Nielsen says. “We know we may not see any result of our efforts for a few years, but we're hoping that it will eventually catch up with us and we will see an increase in the number of students interested in a career in mixed-animal veterinary practice.”

For more information, or to request a presentation visit or DVD, go to www.stuorg.iastate.edu/vsmart/ or e-mail vsmart@iastate.edu.

The V-SMART mission

  • To address the need for mixed and food animal veterinarians in Iowa.

  • To recruit, guide and mentor students toward pursuing a career in veterinary medicine with emphasis on agriculture and animal production.

  • To inform youth of the rewards in pursuing a career in mixed animal veterinary medicine through positive exposure to mentors with whom they can relate.

  • To inspire local youth to remain in their home state by exposing them to career opportunities that will allow them to be financially and professionally successful without the need to migrate to urban areas.

AVMA plots shortage

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has a new Web site designed to address the lack of food-animal veterinarians. The site targets the various groups in food-animal veterinary medicine, including practitioners, vet schools and state and national industry organizations.

www.avma.org/fsvm/default.asp will provide information about the importance of vets in maintaining a healthy and wholesome food supply, and includes a series of maps that give a look at each state and how the lack of rural practitioners is hitting some areas of the country harder than others.