It's no secret that agriculture in the U.S. has gone through major changes in the past century. But let's focus in on ag labor for a second: back in 1900, 41 percent of the national workforce worked in the agricultural sector. By 2000, just 1.9 percent did, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Over the same time period, millions of residents left rural communities behind, seeking job opportunities in cities. With the move away from farms and farm work, it seems the allure of becoming a rural large-animal veterinarian also was lost.
Just 17 percent of the 61,000 or so veterinarians employed in the U.S. work in food-animal veterinary medicine, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). (By comparison, more than 70 percent work with our nation's pets and companion animals.) While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting the number of vets will grow by 36 percent by 2020, the number of veterinarians working with large animals is shrinking -- from 5,143 in 2006 to 4,913 in 2011.
Wyatt Fraas, a project manager for the Center for Rural Affairs, said the dearth of large-animal vets is part of a larger trend of dwindling support services for agriculture.
“We’ve been watching that infrastructure drain as we lose a number of farms,” Fraas told me over the phone from his office in Lyons, Neb. “As we lose the number of farms -- veterinarians, as any businesses, have to have customers.”
In the past century, the number of farms has decreased by 63 percent even as the average size of the farm has grown, according to the USDA. Fraas said many of today's large dairies, feedlots and confinement operations have veterinarians on staff. And while those are good jobs for veterinarians, most large farms prohibit vets from traveling to other operations for fear of spreading livestock disease. That's leaving independent farms seeking veterinary services in a lurch.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are a number of states with high concentrations of livestock that have a shortage of large-animal veterinarians. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri each have at least five counties where there are high concentrations of livestock with no vets to take care of them.
Fraas said the danger of not having enough veterinarians, besides not having anybody to call in the middle of the night for an emergency bovine C-section, was not catching outbreaks like foot-and-mouth disease before they spread.
“Identifying diseases and preventing them is important for the livestock industry everywhere in the world,” Fraas said. “Disease can be caught at the farm level if there’s the incentive to do so.”
In this quote from its web site, the AVMA goes so far as saying that as long as there is the possibility of a shortage of veterinarians working in food-animal medicine, our nation’s food supply is at risk:
While our nation's food supply is one of the safest in the world, it is at risk because fewer veterinary school graduates are pursuing a career in food-animal veterinary medicine, and many aging practitioners are finding it difficult to hire help or sell their practice.
Gatz Riddell, a veterinarian with 35 years of experience who is also the executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said part of the problem is that fewer people are born and raised in rural communities today. That means fewer people have a connection to agriculture or working with livestock.
“If you look at veterinarians who establish a practice in the rural part of the world, they came from the rural part of the world,” Riddell said. “If you’re raised in downtown Atlanta, to go to where I was raised in … Kansas, it's not likely.”
But Riddell denies there's a shortage of large-animal veterinarians. Rather there's a “distribution problem.”
“Many veterinary colleges were saying, 'There is a shortage so we’re going to graduate more veterinarians,'" Riddell said. "If we don’t have a shortage, then we’re doing veterinary students a disservice."
Riddell added that the American Association of Bovine Practitioners is developing better business models to help veterinary businesses stay afloat in rural areas. The group is also considering backing the use of technicians to work with livestock in rural areas to extend the reach of veterinarians and making sure federal and state veterinary studentloan repayment programs are funded. The USDA's Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program pays $25,000 annually to vets who work in designated shortage areas for three years at a time. Riddell says 19 states, including Missouri, have veterinary student loan repayment programs, too, but only five of them are funded.