A recent set of surveys conducted by BEEF magazine reflects growing national concern regarding the availability of rural, large-animal veterinarians. In separate surveys of beef producers and veterinarians, significant concerns of a long-run shortage surfaced.

When asked about the future availability of large-animal vets in their locale, a third of responding producers expressed concern of a long-run shortage. Another third are either concerned about a shortfall coming soon or are already experiencing it. Only one-third of respondents said they're unconcerned about the future shortfall of veterinary service in their communities.

The vets paint a bit gloomier picture, as 40% indicated concern about a long-run shortfall in large-animal vets. And nearly half are either concerned about a vet shortfall coming soon or say there's already a shortage. Only 12% of surveyed vets are unconcerned about a shortfall.

Separately, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conducted what it bills as 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 veterinarians will increase 12-13% between now and 2016, but forecasts a 4-5% annual shortfall.

This means, 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 10 years.

“This study verifies the anecdotal evidence about the current and future shortage of rural large-animal vets across the U.S.,” Vogel says.

Rural veterinarians on the run

Jeff Windett, Columbia, MO, commercial marketing manager of Iberia, MO-based Circle A Angus, senses most large-animal practitioners are strung thin and always seem to be on the run — whether it's for herd work or headed out to an emergency.

“I don't know if they simply can't meet the demand for their services or they have to go overboard in order to make ends meet,” he says. “It might be some of each — either way it becomes a problem for everyone in the cattle business.”

Windett wonders how the beef industry can compete for veterinary services with urbanites and their companion animals. And besides the helter-skelter pace most rural vets find themselves keeping, there's an issue of job complexity.

“A rural vet has more to do these days than just C-sections and pregnancy tests,” he says. “Beyond being a very physically and mentally demanding job, vets face pressure from all directions as they deal with issues like food safety, beef quality assurance and animal ID.”

It's no wonder prospective or future vets shy from large-animal practice — and can become discouraged by burned-out mentors or role models.

He's not saying he's burned out, but at least one practicing vet has a pragmatic opinion about the shortage of vets and the progression of the large-animal veterinary industry.

“For the last few years, I've been trying to convince my state's cattle industry about this issue,” says Don Cobb, DVM, Casper, WY, a practicing vet for almost 40 years. “So far, there's little if any interest in the problem.”

He laments his cow practice today is only emergency and regulatory work.

“I'm expected to be ready and available for any and all calving emergencies,” he adds. “It's difficult to convince yourself to get out of a warm bed and drive in the cold and dark to deliver a calf when you're not needed for anything else.”

Cobb, like many of his colleagues, also blames some of their woes on drug companies selling directly to the end-user, bypassing local vets. Many vets say pharmaceutical sales were once a large part of their income.

“It's resulted in producers purchasing products from uninformed and untrained sources, and eliminates practicing vets from any input in preventive medicine,” he explains. “My drug sales have declined to next to nothing.”

Cobb says it's become so costly to get a veterinary degree that it's impossible for a newly educated vet to pay his or her debt and make a living in a rural community without some kind of relief.

“Until the industry commits to assisting education debt, and ensures the person returns to the community, that won't change,” he says. “Until we can recruit more livestock-oriented people who want to live in rural areas, how can there be any hope for change?”

Decades in the making

The so-called “shortage” of production animal vets has been in the making for at least 35 years, says John E. Offutt, DVM, Athens, TN.

“The problem's never been really one of not enough veterinarians,” he says. “It's about enough clients who respect a vet with the ability to help them have a successful livestock business — and are willing to pay a reasonable amount for that service.”

Offutt has seen his share of “committees” formed to address the vet-supply situation — with little to show for their effort.

“I can guarantee you that elitist consultants, professional educators, government employees and drug companies don't have a clue,” he says. “Someone needs to go out and ask the vets in the trenches what it would take to solve the problem.”

He says there's no question a shortage of rural vets exists, making things tough for the day-to-day needs of livestock producers.

“Yet, who can blame young vets for eschewing the jack-of-all-trades pace needed to make a living in the country?” he asks. “Life is a lot easier — and more lucrative — for those who settle in pet-rich suburbia or concentrate their efforts in specialized practices.”

Offutt has a message for beef producers.

“Many potential clients only want to use the vet when everything is about to crash and burn,” he says. “That crash and burn almost never happens when an experienced herd veterinarian has regular contact with the animals and the management.”

Supply and demand

The “supply” of vets coming out of the nation's ag colleges strikes to the core of the vet shortage problem. The AVMA study shows overwhelmingly that student debt repayment and scholarship programs were the single most important strategy in addressing future shortages.

Windett's neighbor, Tony Martin, DVM, serves on a Missouri Veterinary Medical Association task force evaluating student recruitment, admissions policies and the type of vets the university is turning out.

“I'd like to see more cattlemen's groups work with other business institutions in their states and develop innovative plans to help alleviate or reduce the debt load for graduates going into food-animal vet practices,” he says.

In Missouri, a legislated program helps pay off a certain amount of student-loan debt for students who commit to practicing in areas identified as vet-deficient.

“The law's been on the books for a while, but there's been no funding to implement it,” Martin explains. “We need support from within the state's beef industry to see it gets the necessary funding.”

Increased urbanization and the fact 80% of incoming vet-school students are female are two other issues on the minds of both vets and ranchers. The AVMA study shows that, of 2nd- to 4th-year students in 32 veterinary schools in the U.S. and Canada, 80% are female — and only 25% grew up on ranches or farms or in rural areas. (Of 79,569 veterinarians currently working in the U.S., 46% are female, 54% are male.)

“The profession as a whole needs to reconsider how colleges of vet medicine select, recruit, retain and educate students for food-supply careers,” Vogel adds. “We need to be more aggressive in our recruitment — reaching back to the high school level and even before.”

At Michigan State University (MSU) the Production Medicine Scholars program provides students a different pathway into vet school.

Roy Fogwell, MSU professor of reproductive physiology, says the program will prepare students within the animal-science department for a career in herd-based, production medicine and ag veterinary practice. It will allow up to 10 students/year special admission into the professional vet medicine program. In addition to current pre-vet requirements, enrollees will study farm finance, statistics and advanced sciences.

“There will also be a requirement that these students have direct experience on farms with husbandry and management,” Fogwell explains. “We're very excited about this new educational opportunity for future veterinarians.”

More to the story

Emerging issues of biosecurity and agroterrorism create fear that livestock-producing states may become vulnerable to acts of terrorism and unintentional disease outbreaks.

“With the U.S. public more focused on food safety and security, the role of the food-animal vet has never been more important,” Vogel says. “In a case of terrorism or serious disease outbreak, a shortage of vets would be catastrophic for the industry and society.”

The shortage showed up in Michigan when state and federal veterinarians were needed to help test cattle due to a recent bovine tuberculosis outbreak.

“We didn't have enough vets to handle the workload,” says Ernie Birchmeier, a Michigan Farm Bureau livestock specialist.

“While job satisfaction and retention among new and long-time cattle vets are very high, the industry must do a better job of filling the pipeline if it expects to meet projected demand,” says Cary Christensen, DVM, Bayer Animal Health director of business development. He sees in recent surveys and studies a mandate for change within the industry.

“We have to rally the industry in a way that raises the profile of the profession and attracts new students,” Christensen says.

Rick Sibbel, Schering Plough's director of global ruminant technical services, has another view: “We have to reposition food-animal vet science as an intellectually stimulating field that's of fundamental importance to society,” he says.

Veterinary services study survey results

In early May, BEEF magazine conducted an e-mail survey of its producers and veterinarians. Click on the link below to download the responses to the questions.