Iowa Public Television


Farm Animal Veterinarians in Short Supply

posted on April 15, 2005

Japan on Friday said it still hasn't decided when it will re-open its borders to U.S. beef. Officials said no time frame can be set because they still are reviewing measures to detect Mad Cow disease. In a report to Washington, Japan insisted -- quote -- "This is not a trade issue, but a food safety issue."

For many in production agriculture, food safety translates into food security. Raising healthy livestock not only ensures a better bottom line for producers ... it also helps guarantee a safe food supply for the country. In that regard, the first line of defense often is the country veterinarian.

But as producer Dirck Steimel found, keeping farm veterinarians on the job is a challenge. Jeannie Campbell explains.

As veterinarian Shari Varner parks in the farmyard and unpacks her gear, the problem is obvious. One of Dale Sylvesters cows, only a few days from calving, limps badly after re-injuring a foot. The lameness could complicate calving and force the farmer to haul the valuable animal to the slaughterhouse.

Dr. Varner quickly goes to work. She helps drive the skittish cow into the farmers chute and secures its head with a halter. As the cow bawls and vainly tries to free its foot, the vet carefully strips away an old bandage and examines the injury.

For Sylvester, a veterinarian like Dr. Varner is essential to the success of his operation.

Dale Sylvester, farmer, Littleport, Iowa:

"It's very important to have a vet close by especially during calving season. There may be occasions where we need a little extra help pulling the calf."

But veterinarians like Varner, who treats farm animals and pets in the northeast Iowa town of Elkader, are becoming scarce in Iowa and across the United States.

Of the more than 70,000 vets who practiced in the United States last year, less than a quarter treated farm animals as part or all of their practice. By comparison, in the mid-1980s nearly half of the nations vets treated farm animals.

The shortage of farm animal veterinarians known as food animal vets in the professionis almost certain to grow more acute as older vets retire and fewer enter the field. Iowa alone will need at least 120 additional farm animal vets by the year 2008 to replace the retirees. But the veterinary schools arent able to meet that demand because more students are focusing solely on treating pets, known as companion animals in the profession.

Dr. Pat Halbur, Associate Dean for Public Services and Outreach, ISU Veterinary School: "Right now we have a class size of 105 and approximately 20 to 25 per year choose to go into exclusive food animal or mixed food animal and companion animal. We produce more than anybody else in the nation. The problem is a lot of those students leave the state of Iowa and go other places to practice because other colleges of veterinary medicine are not producing near as many as we are."

Varners practice, Elkader Veterinary Clinic, knows the issue first hand.

Dr. Shari Varner, Elkader Veterinary Clinic:

"We had a great need to replace two veterinarians within the past three is quite an emotional process because there aren't very many out there to begin with."

The shortage of food animal vets is more than an inconvenience for farmers. It is putting the nations food security at risk, veterinary officials say. Traveling from farm to farm, rural veterinarians provide the first line of defense against severe animal disease outbreaks, like foot and mouth, which can devastate livestock herds. And the potential for outbreaks is rising as the food industry becomes more global and as more exotic plants and animal products are imported into the United States.

Dr. John Thomson, Dean of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Science:

"I think it should be a concern for society in general. It is extremely important to have people in the field that are connected with the commodity producers themselves."

There are a variety of reasons more veterinary students are opting for companion animal practices. A big one is money. By the time they graduate, students typically have amassed nearly $100,000 in educational debt which they hope to pay off quickly. Companion practices in urban areas appear more lucrative, especially in the early years.

To address this, Congress passed a measure in 2003 to forgive educational debts of veterinary students who agree to practice in underserved areas. But in an era of tightened federal budgets, the measure has not been funded. Thomson and others hope to obtain funds for a pilot program to jump start the loan forgiveness plan.

Social factors also are behind the shortfall. Some students dont want to live in a rural community.

Others worry about the physical wear and tear of handling large animals in often-difficult weather.

Dr. Ryan Royer, Elkader Veterinary Clinic:

"Certainly there are plenty of days where I go home feeling pretty sore and maybe even mending some wounds but I guess that just comes with it."

But perhaps the biggest reason for the shortage, experts say, is that most of todays veterinary students have little connection to farms.

Michelle Jens, who will start working at a food animal veterinary practice after she graduates this spring, agrees.

Michelle Jens, Iowa State University vet student:

"I think a lot of it has to do with the demise of the family farms. Not as many people are from family farms these days. They don't have the agriculture background or the livestock background."

With the declining farm population, veterinary officials know its essential to get more city kids interested in treating food animals, as well as pets. With that in mind, Iowa State University and state veterinary groups have launched a program called V-SMART. The program sends current vet students out to recruit prospective students into a mixed practice of food and companion animals.

LeAnn Bouska, an Iowa State Veterinary student, says the V-SMART program is casting a wide net to fill the need.

Le Ann Bouska, ISU Vet Student: "It's primarily high school students. Occasionally we get some junior high and elementary students in there. But you get a lot of parents as well who are interested in what their children are interested in as well."

Iowa State officials are optimistic the program will succeed.

Dr. Varner, like a lot of mixed animal vets, thinks that students should keep an open mind about working with both food and companion animals. Despite the long hours and hard work in often harsh weather, she couldnt be happier with her choice.

Dr. Shari Varner, Elkader Veterinary Clinic:

"I come from a farm background and so I was always around large animals. I always enjoyed working with them. But there is also with small animals a great companionship that I get from them and the joy of being with them and treating them, helping them to get better too."

Tags: agriculture animals doctors livestock Mad Cow medicine news