Fewer students are entering school to become large-animal veterinarians, resulting in a growing shortage among those on the front lines in protecting the nation’s food supply.
Part of the problem is that treating large animals — beef or dairy cattle, horses, lamas, bison — is hard work with odd hours and, unless it is a federal government job, it’s not especially lucrative.
It has also become more difficult to lure people into the profession because students typically must take on large loans that take years to pay back.
The average veterinary school student’s debt last year was $120,000, said Tom Parks, president-elect of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.
Entry-level salaries for large-animal veterinarians range from $50,000 to $60,000 per year. While that might not sound bad to start, the potential for them to boost their earnings is limited.
That’s because small-animal vets in private practice can see one pet after the next throughout the day, but large-animal vets often have to travel long distances to a ranch, dairy or feedlot and, as a result, treat fewer animals. Also, people are more likely to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, to care for their pets, while ranchers and farmers won’t.
A scarcity of job opportunities for the spouses of vets in rural areas also is fueling the shortage.
Nationally, there are about 8,850 veterinarians who have regular contact with “food animals,” according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That number has remained stagnant for the past 10 years. Moreover, nearly half of all veterinarians are 50 or older and headed to retirement.
In some parts of Colorado, places like Limon and Florissant, the shortage is so severe that twice as many veterinarians are needed.
For a state that ranks 10th nationwide in the cattle industry, the trend has made life a lot more complicated for ranchers like Rob Alexander, who is also president of Stockmens Bank.
Last week, Alexander needed a veterinarian to help a pregnant cow that had been in labor too long. He couldn’t find one whose busy schedule would allow them to come to his ranch in the Calhan area on the eastern plains of Colorado.
“The cow was exhausted and starting to go into shock,” Alexander said. “I was sure we needed a vet for a C-section.”
As it turned out, the calf was still-born. Alexander was able to save the mother but having a vet at his side would have made the ordeal a lot easier.
Ranching is a capital-intensive business with narrow profit margins, so keeping herds healthy is critical to Alexander’s bottom line. If disease spreads through a herd, cattle die — increasing costs for him and his customers.
Industry experts also worry the growing scarcity of veterinarians could hurt the food supply and, here too, drive up prices.
“Veterinarians play a key role in ensuring the safety of our food supply and that diseases of animals aren’t transmitted to humans,” said Lance Perryman, dean of Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science in Fort Collins, the only school for vets in the state.
Food-borne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion a year, or an average of $1,850 each time someone gets sick from food, according to a recent report by a former Food and Drug Administration economist.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service has a vacancy rate of 35 percent. What’s more, nearly one-third of vets employed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Army and the USDA are eligible to retire within three years.
Salaries for veterinary medicine in the research, diagnostic, pharmaceutical and public-health sectors start as high as $72,000 a year, considerably higher than for vets who work in a large-animal private practice.
“More schooling, more debt and more expense end up discouraging more students (from pursuing public service),” Perryman said. “But for those who do, the economic payoff is quite good.”
Still, the number of students graduating from the large-animal care program at CSU Fort Collins is down from 29 in 2004 to 11 last year.
To help combat the shortage, CSU has started a program that combines internships and mentoring for students in its programs.
Also, the state will receive federal funds this year to help students repay loans in exchange for agreeing to work in underserved areas.
Such scholarships and incentives are timely, but aren’t likely to be enough.
“A lot of people my age are ready to transition out of the profession,” Parks said. “We’ll probably continue to have a shortage.”
For those who remain committed to the profession, getting creative will be key to success.
Colorado native Amy Daley, who is studying large-animal medicine at CSU Fort Collins, hopes after graduation to set up a private practice for mixed large-animals in a community somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region.
However, she’ll have to go where she can find enough work to pay off debt — including out of state.
“Student loans are a big concern — I will have a hefty amount,” Daley said. “The thing that’s really scary for us is the first two years of income vs. debt load — they’re converging. The debt is on a much steeper curve, but income is flat.”
Daley hopes that her MBA will help her with the business aspects of private practice.
She plans to treat a variety of animals — sheep, goats, pigs, alpacas, lamas — not just cattle and horses, to improve her odds.
“I think you can be successful as a large animal (practitioner), even in a rural area, if you make yourself valuable to clients — whether they are ranchers, hobby farmers or families with two horses in a backyard,” Daley said.