A few years back, one of the more worrisome problems in cattle country was a shortage of large animal veterinarians. Beef producers were concerned that the higher pay and easier workload of a small animal practice was luring veterinary students away from food animal medicine.
And for a while, that concern was valid. Established beef veterinarians were getting older and looking for someone to take over their practice, or join them and lighten the work load. That’s changed, according to veterinary college professors and administrators speaking on a panel at a recent Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. seminar.
Brad White left his private cow-calf practice to join the faculty at K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “In 2005, when I first started, I received many phone calls from practitioners who could not find enough students to hire, especially in rural and mixed animal practices,” he says.
That has shifted over the last 10 years and now, most of his conversations are with students looking for a food animal opportunity. “So veterinarians are having less trouble finding students to come into their practices. There are enough students who are interested that the veterinarians can find enough people to fit,” White says.
Part of that is because of changes in the beef business. “We see changes in the number of farms, we see changes in the number of ranches, we see consolidation, we see changes in the size of those operations,” White says. On the other hand, vet schools are graduating more students and more of those students have an appreciation for the opportunities in large animal medicine.
There are several reasons for that, according to Patrick Halbur, chair of the Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. While he says there are fewer students from ag backgrounds who apply and are accepted into vet schools, changes in curriculum and approaches to teaching are turning many non-ag students on to large animal medicine.
In fact, Halbur says 55% to 60% of the vet students at Iowa State are on a food animal and mixed animal track. While he admits that’s probably the highest percentage of the 30 veterinary colleges in the U.S., he says those students have at least two job offers after graduation.
In spite of all that, some shortages still exist. “So as we talk about salary and debt ratio, there are some areas that really need a veterinarian to help complete the work that’s there,” White says. “But the salary may not align with the debt the student comes out of school with. So while there is a need to have a person fulfilling those veterinary duties, if that salary is not such that the new graduate can come out and fill that job, then we sometimes perceive a shortage.”
In Missouri, the Department of Agriculture has stepped up to help. According to Linda Berent, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, the department has a loan forgiveness program that provides $20,000 a year for students who will go to an underserved area. “So that’s one way to encourage people to go to those areas,” she says.
Is that enough? Veterinary students graduate with a crushing debt load. The average, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, is $135,000 and veterinary students enter the profession with an average debt:income ratio of 2.05:1, largely because starting salaries haven’t kept up with tuition increases.
“So is there a shortage?” White asks. “There are some places where I think there is a shortage of people who can do things for prices that we did them for 10 or 15 years ago.”
In short, if you want veterinarians in your area, you have to pay them. Plain and simple.
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