A lot of things are changing in food animal production and veterinary medicine. Not only is the technology and science advancing, so are the opportunities, particularly for veterinarians in rural practice.

Some rural veterinarians specialize in one animal species, but many care for a variety of species. These mixed practices serve clients that ask for a high standard of service. In return, the veterinarian becomes a respected member of the community, responsible for the care of companion animals as well as contributing to the health of production animals and the financial survival of their owners.

Veterinarians are also key individuals in the health of the community due to an understanding of how diseases affect populations of animals (epidemiology) and also their training in zoonotic diseases, capable of affecting both animals and humans.

What's the job potential?

In 2003, a survey of 325 private-practice veterinarians in Iowa was conducted by the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association and the Iowa State University (ISU) College of Veterinary Medicine. The survey found 151 of these veterinarians reporting their practice to range from 50% companion animal-50% food animal, to predominantly or exclusively food animal. Another 49 veterinarians 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 veterinarian in the next five years. Another 32% indicated they'd need to replace a retiring food animal veterinarian 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! Some of these positions may be filled by relocating veterinarians, but it's clear there's a very strong demand for new graduates.

A national study of this type is now underway at Kansas State University (KSU), and is being funded by a consortium of veterinary practitioner groups and industry.

Recruitment tactics

Colleges of veterinary medicine are also responding by evaluating ways to recruit students interested in food animal and rural practice. In 2002, KSU hosted a meeting related to the supply of food animal veterinarians. Attending the meeting were more than 200 representatives of academia, government, industry and organized veterinary medicine, as well as practitioners and students.

In addition, Iowa State University students have initiated V-SMART (Veterinary Student Mixed Animal Recruitment Team). These students work with practicing veterinarians to inform local groups about veterinary practice and life in a college of veterinary medicine. Other colleges have also expressed interest in starting chapters.

The federal government is also responding to the situation. Last fall, President Bush signed the National Veterinary Services Act (HR 1367) into law. This act authorizes USDA's Secretary to:

“carry out a program of entering into agreements with veterinarians under which the veterinarians agree to provide, for a period of time as determined by the Secretary and specified in the agreement, veterinary services in veterinarian shortage situations. For each year of such service under an agreement under this paragraph, the Secretary shall pay an amount, as determined by the Secretary and specified in the agreement, of the principal and interest of qualifying educational loans of the veterinarians.” Some of the definitions of a shortage, to be determined by the Secretary, are:

“(1) Urban or rural areas that the Secretary determines have a shortage of veterinarians.

“(2) Areas of veterinary practice that the Secretary determines have a shortage of veterinarians, such as public health, epidemiology, and food safety.”

Funds haven't yet been allocated to start this program, but this first step illustrates the importance placed on vets in rural communities, and the importance of vets in assuring public and animal health.

A group of rural vets has organized as the Academy of Rural Veterinarians (ARV) to tell the story of rural practice and provide mentorship to veterinary students interested in this lifestyle. Their message is that they are respected and productive members of the community, they make a good living, the work is challenging, it's a good environment in which to raise a family, and they are having fun. If you have only been exposed to cynical views of veterinary practice, then this group represents access to successful rural veterinarians that are very happy with their career choices.

Where should you start?

If you're considering a career or a change of career, and are interested in veterinary medicine, approach your local veterinarian for a part-time job or volunteer involvement. Sharpen your study skills and pay attention to math, science and communication-related courses. Yes, communication! Veterinary medicine is about serving people and animals, and your ability to use written and verbal forms of communication will determine your success as a veterinarian.

The emphasis on assuring rural communities are served by veterinarians fits nicely with those of us who don't need a shopping mall fix once a day, know — or would like to learn — our way around animal agriculture, and enjoy knowing a lot of the people at the café or county fair by name. If you'd enjoy a challenging career in this environment, veterinary medicine is looking for you.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is an associate professor of beef production medicine at Iowa State University in Ames.