Joe Armstrong, a University of Minnesota large-animal veterinary student, is drawn to the field despite knowing he will leave school with a heavy debt load.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Rural veterinarians: Too few, too far

  • Article by: WALKER MOSKOP
  • Star Tribune
  • August 26, 2012 - 9:56 PM

New Sweden Dairy in Nicollet, Minn., is a sprawling, routinized operation.

Every day, 3,000 cows are milked three times each. Every seven seconds, a cow steps into one of the 72 stalls of the rotary milking parlor, where a computer identifies the cow and tracks how long she milks and how much milk she gives -- information used, in part, to monitor her health. About 20 times a day, a calf is born.

Despite the efficiency and organization, there are complexities. Some cows have difficulty giving birth. Sometimes, they get sick. Occasionally, they need surgery.

That's where veterinarians come into play. But in some parts of rural Minnesota, there are too few veterinarians overseeing the health of too much livestock. And that, veterinarians say, increases the risk that animal diseases can spread.

Food animal veterinarians do a lot more than treat sick farm animals. They're on the front lines for catching disease and stopping it from spreading to other animals -- and people -- and are vital to the safety of the nation's food supply. And economically, they play an important role: Healthier livestock means more money for farmers.

"The local veterinarian is the most likely person to first observe and identify [a problem] and ring the bell that says, 'Oops, something's wrong,'" said John Fetrow, a professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. "Well, that presumes the local veterinarian is going to be there."

Nationwide, only 17 percent of veterinarians work in food animal medicine, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). In Minnesota, several rural areas have a shortage of veterinarians who work with livestock, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally, the shortage is projected to grow by 4 to 5 percent annually through 2016.

The shortage is partly a result of too many students entering the pet care field, said Rene Carlson, president of the AVMA.

It's also caused by simple economics: Some sparsely populated rural areas don't have enough animals to make running a clinic viable, Carlson said, especially when factoring in the massive student loan debt -- often more than $140,000 -- carried by veterinarians at graduation.

"Veterinary students get out and they look at their loan payments and they look at the desire to eat more than peanut butter" and decide they simply can't afford to work in rural areas, said Fetrow.

Being a food animal veterinarian can be demanding. Many are on call nights and weekends and cover a vast geography, so it's not uncommon to spend long stretches on the road. Not to mention that being outside in unpredictable weather and dealing with 1,200-pound dairy cows can make for a tiring day.

Lifestyle factors and better pay pull many recent graduates into pet care medicine, including some who start out caring for food animals. "Five years out of school, [of the] people who started doing some food animal medicine," Fetrow said, "probably a third or more of them aren't doing it anymore."

Accelerated program

To draw more students into food animal care, the U offers an accelerated program that lets students earn their bachelor's and doctoral degrees in seven years, as opposed to eight. The school also has a veterinary public health program, through which students can earn a master's degree in public health and doctoral degree in veterinary medicine in four years.

A federal loan repayment program offers recent graduates up to $25,000 annually for up to three years for working in underserved areas. But this year, because of budget cuts, Minnesota received no repayment funds, removing a sizeable incentive for students interested in working in rural areas.

One of those students is Joe Armstrong, 23. He just completed his first year of veterinary school at the U, and is working this summer at the school's Dairy Education Center, which is housed at New Sweden.

He's had internships working with both food animals and pets, but loves rural life and prefers being outside with a farmer's herd.

But his debt will be a "huge issue," he said, especially since starting this year, graduate students are no longer eligible for federal subsidized Stafford loans, which don't accrue interest until after graduation.

"Everybody knew they were going to have a lot of debt coming out [of school] no matter what," Armstrong said, "but it's really frustrating to see that now, it's even worse, and there's no way we could have prepared for that."

As with many other professions, student debt is a vexing problem for the veterinary business. Relative to the cost of the degree, there's not a lot of money to made in food animal care. Fetrow said most graduates entering dairy production medicine will start out earning around $60,000. Yet tuition at the College of Veterinary Medicine has risen as state higher education funding declined.

Smaller farms used to underwrite the activity of rural veterinarians, Fetrow said. As livestock industries have consolidated over the years, it's become more challenging to sustain a clinic in thinly populated areas.

Unless graduates leave school with much less debt, those areas will continue to be underserved, Fetrow said.

"We have to underwrite that education," he said.

Walker Moskop • 612-673-4265

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