Current vets said they already drive for hours to meet with clients, and officials are worried about the impact on food safety, as large-animal veterinarians serve as inspectors at ranches and slaughterhouses.
"They're basically on the front line when it comes to maintaining a safe food supply, not only in the U.S., but in products we export. Vets diagnose diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans," said David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. Results of a survey conducted by the group were released last month.
The study found that only 2 percent of veterinary school students in 2010 graduating class said they planned to work mostly with large, non-pet animals. Another 7 percent studied a mixed curriculum that included all types of animals but the majority of responses leaned toward practicing pet care.
From 1998 to 2009, the number of small animal vets climbed to 47,118 from 30,255, while the number of farm-animal vets dropped to 5,040 from 5,553. And the AVMA found that large animal vets often earn a lower salary: an average of $57,745 compared to $64,744 for small-animal vets, according to a 2008 survey.
The large-animal vet world is graying - half of farm-animal vets are older than 50, and only 4.4 percent are younger than 30. About a third of the veterinarians working at the federal level are eligible to retire in the next three years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At least six rural counties in California have just one large-animal veterinarian.
Several schools and states have tried to lure students to large-animal veterinary medicine. At the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, applicants interested in becoming farm-animal vets have an admissions edge. The university has slowly boosted the number of students interested in large-animal medicine to 11 students out of 127, double the number from four years ago. The vet school has also reached out to high schools in rural areas.
More than a dozen states, from Washington to Georgia, offer some type of loan repayment program or other incentives if students pledges to work in a region in need of large-animal vets. Vet students typically finish school with about $134,000 in debt, according to the AVMA.
Iowa State's VSMART program allows students focused on farm animals to reduce by a year the amount of time it takes to get a veterinary medicine degree - a big deal when you're talking about spending upward of $32,000 a year, Kirkpatrick said.
Federal legislators have introduced several bills to help increase the number of farm animal vets, including the Veterinary Services Investment Act, which is aimed at recruitment, helping vets expand their practices and providing financial assistance for students. The bill passed the House in September and is awaiting approval in the Senate.