Many rural areas around the Midwest are experiencing a shortage of veterinarians. The USDA lists North and South Dakota among states with a critical shortage in veterinary practices, and both states have positions open for new graduates to participate in USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program.
Dr. Jennifer Roberts, a dairy professional services veterinarian for Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, shares that the scarcity of veterinarians in certain rural regions is not due graduate schools not turning out enough farm-animal veterinarians. “There isn’t necessarily a shortage of total veterinarians, the shortage of veterinarians is in specific geographical areas in the rural U.S.,” she says.
One of the reasons farmers or ranchers may recognize a shortage of veterinary services in their area is because they might have a calving problem or other emergency on their farm, and they can’t find a veterinarian within a reasonable distance who can attend to the emergency, Roberts says. However, veterinarians in rural areas are unable to sustain a business on providing emergency services alone.
“Veterinarians setting up a new practice in a rural shortage area need farmers to be willing to have them out to the farm for routine preventative health services that would help sustain their practice in-between farm emergencies," she says.
Through her over 15 years as a veterinarian, Roberts has been involved in different aspects of the industry. She started in a rural practice focused on food animals. She was then a faculty member at Michigan State University, teaching and mentoring veterinary students. She is now at Boehringer Ingelheim, consulting with large dairy farms throughout the Northeast.
Challenges for new vets
As new graduates, young veterinarians can be under immense financial and emotional stress when it comes to a first job. According to the 2020 Economic State of the Veterinary Profession report, published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, new veterinarians made an average of $70,000 annually in 2019.
The highest specialty in the range are companion-animal veterinarians making an average of $90,893, while those in equine only averaged $53,804 in 2019. With many of these graduates averaging $183,000 in veterinary school debt, choosing a practice and specialty that gives financial stability is imperative for their success.
“It can be really daunting for a new graduate to move into a rural area they’re unfamiliar with to start out on their own trying to build a business and pay loans and bills,” Roberts says.
This is especially true for veterinarians who are unfamiliar with rural practices, or unfamiliar with a rural lifestyle, she says. Also, the younger generation of veterinary graduates may be more removed from the farm and may find it difficult to develop social connections and be a part of a community if their peers have moved away from rural areas.
For many of the new veterinarians that take advantage of the USDA’s veterinarian loan repayment programs, the veterinarians have no guarantee of income.
“The financial strain related to high debt-to-income ratios and long hours of veterinary practice can take a toll. We have a very high rate of mental health issues in the veterinary profession, with many veterinarians experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue,” Roberts says.
COVID-19 restrictions over the past year have added another concern onto veterinarians. “There’s been an increase in veterinary caseloads throughout the pandemic. The uncertainty of the pandemic, longer hours and changing dynamics of client interactions have led some veterinarians to experience an increase in mental duress.”
Roberts says preventive herd services can help producers save money in the long run. “There’s a lot of benefit for farmers and ranchers to work with a veterinarian to improve their herd productivity. Regular consultation with a herd veterinarian to perform routine pregnancy diagnosis, develop vaccination strategies for prevention of infectious disease and implement parasite control programs are a few of the ways veterinarians can help producers improve their farm’s profitability.”
Roberts shares that the average cost for producers to maintain an open cow through the winter is $850 for feed and labor costs, which is money producers can save by working routinely with a veterinarian in their herd.
Aside from the potential strain experienced by veterinarians working long hours on challenging cases, Roberts shares that many veterinarians are drawn into the profession to make a difference. “I grew up on my family’s dairy and I love working with cows, but I really enjoy working with the farmers and ranchers. Helping the farmers I work with is really the highlight of my role as a veterinarian,” she says.
Rural communities that utilize their veterinarians see benefits with economic and community support. “A community that makes a sustainable area for a veterinarian to live comfortably while paying back their loans and without experiencing burnout will help veterinarians come to those rural areas,” Roberts says.
A community that helps a veterinarian succeed can reap benefits of quick assistance with on-farm emergencies and a local practice to fill their veterinary needs, she adds.