Changes in agriculture place new demands on rural veterinarians
National Report — While the shortage of rural veterinarians across the country is palpable, the number of people needed isn't.
In approximately 152 counties, there are no veterinarians to serve 5,000 or fewer food animals. These areas are spread throughout the country, but are mostly east of the Mississippi, from Kentucky to the Atlantic coast.
"Agriculture is changing," says Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Colleges (AAVMC). "Where 20 or 30 years ago, there were lots of operations where there were 50, 60, 80, 100 cows or head of cattle and lots of farmers, lots of livestock owners and holders, today that has changed. There is much greater consolidation, fewer owners, fewer farms that actually own livestock. While those numbers have decreased, the size of the operations has increased."
"There is a shortage, but how big it is and how many people are needed to fill it is what is difficult to determine," Pappaioanou says.
Additionally, the strategies to stem the shortage have not been studied at length in the veterinary profession, so finding the right solution will take time, she says.
Talking to students is key, according to Pappaioanou and rural veterinarians already in the field.
But the life of a rural veterinarians isn't as bleak as often portrayed, and the stereotype is doing more harm by chasing away potential veterinarians, some say.
Dr. Brett Andrews, part owner of the Burwell Veterinary Hospital in Burwell, Neb., puts in about 50 hours a week at his 3.5-person practice, taking care of cows and calves as far as 80 miles away in one direction and 20 miles in another. Despite a six-county coverage area, Andrews finds himself downright bored at times.
"We don't spend all day driving from one call to the next," he says good-naturedly. "Our producers are big enough that when we go out there, we spend several hours. And our work is very seasonal. We're busy three months in the fall and four months in the spring. The other five months of the year, we spend a lot of time standing around looking at each other."
Nonetheless, today's rural veterinarian needs to have an understanding of food-animal diseases, epidemiology, economics, data management, prevention and a host of other skills to work with larger producers.
But that's not driving the drought, Andrews says. The shortage seems to be mostly in single-veterinarian practices, he says, especially when that one veterinarian is looking to retire.
"Graduates don't want to be solo practitioners," Andrews says. "That's where a lot of the shortage is coming from. It's partially our fault, too, for not keeping the fee schedule up. A new person coming in can't meet their debt load on the old schedule." Practitioners also need to mentor students who may be interested in becoming a rural veterinarian, Andrews says.