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Blood, vet and tears: The winds of change blow to vet medicine

Slideshow: As Illinois livestock numbers decline and with them, large-animal veterinarians, downstate producers are left to pick up the pieces to tend to their herds. Here’s why it’s happening, and what’s next for livestock and the folks who care for them.

Betty Haynes

November 17, 2023

8 Slides

At a Glance

  • With fewer rural large-animal veterinarians in Illinois than ever before, producers are forced to do their own vet work.
  • University of Illinois vet grads opt for small-animal, specialized practice in urban areas in search of higher salaries.
  • New technologies and corporate consolidation are changing the future of the veterinary medicine industry.

On a damp, bone-chilling spring morning, Rollin Head found two feet hanging out of a heifer at his Blue Mound, Ill., feedlot. She was trying to calve, but her odds didn’t look good. Head’s breath hung in the air as he led her to the chute.

He tried to pull the calf. No luck. He called his closest veterinarian, who said the heifer would need to come to the clinic for a C-section, but that was 25 miles away. She was already down in the chute and wasn’t going anywhere.

It was the best the vet could offer given limited staff and tight schedules.

Vets few and far between

This central Illinois cattleman’s crisis is, unfortunately, becoming more common. From plowed-up pastures to volatile markets, the last 25 years have created a perfect storm to cull Illinois’ livestock numbers. Those who remain are forced to confront a grim reality: Fewer livestock mean fewer large-animal veterinarians to service the state. And it’s a trend going in the wrong direction.

In Head’s Blue Mound community and those around it, there are two large-animal vets within a 30-mile radius. Both are normally swamped with surgeries and appointments at the clinic. For Head and many like him, this has meant learning much of the trade himself, garnering what he can from watching others, practicing and scanning YouTube as a last resort.

Cattle producers resorting to doing their own vet work is no substitute for a professionally trained veterinarian. And it actually contributes to the veterinarian shortage. But many have no other choice.

“The consequence of producers doing their own vet work is, it’s harder to employ veterinarians in that area,” says Jim Lowe, University of Illinois associate dean of online programs and Extension in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “It takes a lot of cows to support a large-animal vet. That’s just an unfortunate fact.”

In the last 30 years, U of I vet classes have doubled to meet increased demand, accepting 160 students in 2023 — 85% of which are female. However, most graduates are opting to practice small-animal rather than large-animal or rural mixed practice.

Nearly half of graduating students in 2023 came from other states, with most Illinois students hailing from the Chicago suburbs. In comparison, 30 years ago, classes were half female and largely comprised of Illinois natives.

“Our accepted vet student demographics match our applicant pool,” Lowe explains. “It’s not that we have a bunch of downstate applicants we aren’t letting in.”

As the downstate population shrinks, fewer rural students mean fewer graduates looking to practice vet medicine in rural Illinois. There are economic drivers like higher salaries, higher service rates and more pets that pull graduates into urban and suburban small-animal practice, he adds.

The industry has also moved toward specialization, where practitioners can concentrate on disciplines like radiology, oncology or dermatology. In some cases, these specialties allow them to set their own schedules — an appealing benefit in contrast with around-the-clock emergency calls.

“There’s a very different care expectation from the public today,” Lowe says. “Pets have become a bigger part of the family, and people are willing to spend more on them today than ever before.”

A special mindset

Head works with Wes Keller of Keller Veterinary Service in Humbolt, Ill. Keller started his career a decade ago in mixed-animal practice for Dr. John Brix in Shelbyville, Ill. He’s since opened his own practice, specializing in embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization work.

“It takes a special mindset to take on the lifestyle that entails veterinary practice,” says Keller, noting that the physical nature and long hours discourage many bright young students.

In mixed practice, Keller covered a large portion of the state to have enough livestock clients. “We were busy with emergencies nearly every night,” he adds.

Exponential tuition increases have created an additional obstacle for prospective rural practitioners, struggling to pencil out student loan payback. The average cost of obtaining a vet, medical and dental degree are all relatively similar, but the average vet’s annual income is vastly lower than a doctor’s or dentist’s.

Downstate rural practitioners have had to adjust their business models to meet the needs of industry changes. Don St Ledger of Albion Veterinary Clinic in Albion, Ill., says demand in his neck of the woods looks noticeably different than when he graduated vet school in 1978.

When St Ledger opened the clinic, his customers were 75% livestock and 25% companion animals. Today that number has flip-flopped, and roughly 70% of his business is made up of small companion animals.

Between swine industry consolidation and cattle herds becoming fewer in number and larger in size, many livestock farms are performing more of their own vet work.

St Ledger will soon be 72. He’d like to slow down. But so far, he hasn’t had any luck attracting new talent to the town of 2,000, which has more equipment dealerships than grocery stores.

“I’ve devoted my life to a profession that this community deserves to have,” St Ledger says. “It’s disappointing to work this long to have a practice that isn’t sellable, and more disappointing for the citizens of Edwards County if someone can’t take my place.”

He’s heard rumblings of corporations buying small clinics across the state, but is skeptical of their devotion to both animals and clients.

“I became a vet because I’ve always enjoyed animals,” St Ledger says. “I worry companies won’t have as much personal care as what I was taught in school.”

He’s also concerned about technology’s increased role in the industry, noting that without vet access, customers often resort to Google.

“Sometimes the computer is correct, but other times, it’s way out in left field,” St Ledger explains. “It’s pretty dangerous to count on that as your only source.”

Part of the blame, he says, falls on increased education requirements, discouraging many good students from pursuing a vet degree.

“There’s more to being a successful vet than being in the top 2% of your graduating class,” he says. “I know a lot of great vets that didn’t necessarily have a 5.0 GPA.”

Solutions ahead?

“I thought that the profession had changed a lot in the last several decades, and it’ll change more in the next 10 than it did in the last 30,” Lowe says. “There are a lot of things afoot that will reshape how we practice — some great and some not so great.”

Corporate players like Walmart and Amazon have entered the pet medicine space, forgoing vet oversight of over-the-counter animal pharmaceuticals. Venture capitalists and corporations are buying and consolidating vet practices, recognizing the sector’s profit potential.

“For years, animal ag has really suffered from a lack of capital,” Lowe explains. “Now there’s big-time money flowing into the vet space. There’s two ways you can look at it: Be scared out of your socks, or as the best opportunity we’ve ever seen.”

The U of I founded the Center for Veterinary Innovation to explore how technology can bridge the vet shortage gap by exploring solutions like calving sensors.

“If I need to haul her an hour, we can proactively leverage technology for a better outcome,” Lowe says. “Sensors provide an early warning sign if the cow’s having trouble, rather than calling the doc when the calf is stuck.”

But new tech in veterinary medicine will come with a hefty price tag, potentially pricing independent rural practitioners and livestock producers out of cutting-edge innovations.

The U of I is also trying to attract vet practitioners to rural areas, and it’s getting help from cattle producers like Head. A few years ago, he had a local kid working on the farm who is now a vet student at Iowa State University.

“We told him we’d build him a clinic if he came back here,” Head explains.

Do or die for cattle

Folks like Head can’t wait around for a clear solution to the rural vet shortage. They can’t wait for a new clinic to open or for new technologies that may be a decade away. They have cattle to tend to now, which is what led Head to perform a C-section on that cold spring morning.

“It was either try and save the cow, or both would be terminal,” Head recalls.

Quickly scouring the farm for resources, he had most of the supplies needed to perform the operation. And like any self-sufficient cattleman, he had gleaned a trick or two from watching prior vet visits.

Head and his employees scrubbed, shaved and numbed the heifer. They cut through layers of skin, fat, muscle and uterus. The calf was already dead; was it too late for the heifer? Head called a neighboring vet, who coached him through the proper suture and antibiotic protocol. Within a few hours, the heifer was up and eating again.

“It was a crooked incision and stitch job,” he explains. “It didn’t look pretty, but we saved her.”

Being resourceful was “bred into me,” Head concludes. “Cattle people are kind of hardheaded anyhow. If there isn’t a way, we’ll make our own.”

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About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Oakford , Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty won the 2023 Andy Markwart Horizon Award, 2022 Emerging Writer, and received Master Writer designation from the Ag Communicators Network. She was also selected as a 2023 Young Leader by the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.

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