Food animal vets 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 food safety.
They also play a critical role in agricultural economics: Healthier livestock means more money for farmers.
Nationwide, only 17 percent of vets work in food animal medicine, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. In Minnesota, several rural areas have a shortage of veterinarians who work with livestock, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In North Dakota, “there's definitely a need for vets” in underserved and rural areas, said Neil Dyer, director of the veterinary diagnostic lab at North Dakota State University. He advises students in the school's pre-veterinary medicine program.
The problem is more acute in central and western North Dakota, which has more livestock and bigger gaps in availability of veterinary services, he said.
In those areas, “smaller communities struggle to keep a full-time vet in-house,” he said.
Nationally, the shortage is projected to grow 4 to 5 percent annually through 2016.
There's “definitely” a shortage, said Charlotte Klose, a veterinarian who has practiced in Park River for 16 years.
“It's hard work and long hours, and the pay probably isn't what people think it is,” she said. “It's harder to get people to go into large-animal veterinarian medicine.”
Being a vet “is not the most glamorous job,” she said. “I say that to my clients when I'm covered with blood and manure. You can't worry about your nails or your makeup.”
Klose said the shortage can be explained by the downturn in rural populations generally.
“It's the same reason our schools are getting smaller,” she said.
The shortage is partly a result of too many students entering the pet care field, said Rene Carlson, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. It's also a matter of economics.
“The reality is that communities may not have enough caseload to support a vet,” said Charlie Stoltenow, extension veterinarian at NDSU and board president of the North Dakota Veterinary Medical Association.
In addition, students' burden of debt at graduation and the high cost of establishing a practice make it “difficult for (vet school) graduates to start out in a small community,” he said.
“There are lots of costs – the building, buying the equipment and all the inventory; it's daunting. The veterinarian is essentially a small-business owner,” Stoltenow said.
Tuition for four years of vet school can amount to $200,000, he said, not to mention living costs during school. The average debt for vet school graduates is $150,000. Average starting salary is $60,000.
Stoltenow said he and his colleagues worry that the debt load will cause graduates “to take jobs that are going to help them to pay back debt rather than choose a rural site, where they may want to go.”
In his work at NDSU, Stoltenow has counseled students about their options and the potential costs and income.
“Some bright, capable, wonderful people have chosen to go on for a Ph.D. (degree) or other career once they look at the cold, hard, economic facts,” he said.
North Dakota is better off than about a dozen years ago, due in part to state programs that support students who are admitted to out-of-state veterinary schools, said Jesse Vollmer, assistant state veterinarian. North Dakota does not offer a veterinary medicine program.
Such programs have helped a number of young people by providing loan forgiveness and other incentives to return to North Dakota, he said.
Ron Del Vecchio, head of the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, noted that rural veterinarians “have never been plentiful.”
But “there is a shortage right now,” he said, noting that he and others in the field are concerned about the vets who are in the latter years of their careers and thinking about retirement. “We worry who's going to come and take their place.”
The work of a large-animal vet is consuming.
“You're on the road a lot; you have to drive to your clients,” Del Vecchio said. “It's not 8-to-5; it's all the time. You will get calls at 10:30 at night or on Christmas Eve or Sunday morning after church. There's a heavy demand. People tend to shy away from that a little bit.”
The shortage also can be traced to fewer students coming off family farms, Del Vecchio said. Those who haven't grown up on farms “have not developed a love of animals,” he said.
In an effort to encourage students to pursue careers in large-animal veterinary medicine, UMC offers a program, “Vet Fast,” which attracts up to six applicants each year.
Students can apply as early as their freshman year. If accepted, the student is assured a spot in the University of Minnesota veterinary school at the Twin Cities campus.
In the early college years, “not everyone is convinced they want to go into food animal practice,” Del Vecchio said. Even so, UMC has been “fairly successful” in placing students in the program, he said.
Students who choose to become food animal vets do so “because they love rural America,” he said. “It's where they want to live and raise their families. They love being around livestock. Having a love for the lifestyle is probably the main attraction.”
Dyer said the vet shortage has the “potential to be critical, in some areas where producers could use veterinary support, and can't get it.”
But there are several points in food production where inspections are required and “where an animal or food product could be disposed of, if it were a threat to the food chain,” he said, “so the threat to food safety is indirect, in my mind.”
Klose, the Park River vet, takes issue with the idea that a vet shortage affects the quality of America's food source, at least in North Dakota.
“The young producers I work with are very smart and up-to-date on all the vaccines and things you have to watch for during calving,” she said. “It's a business. Producers have to do a good job and put out a good product, or they're not going to make any money.”