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The Beef Angle

Veterinary Medicine 'Losing its Presence' in Food Animal Sector

The number of veterinarians focused on food animal production is slipping, and a mountain of debt is undermining the value of a vet school degree.

A new report released last week by the National Research Council sounded the alarm bells over some major trends in the veterinary workforce. The report, authored by a committee assembled by the National Academies, looked at the major trends in the profession, outlined five key conclusions, and a number of recommendations on how to deal with some of the biggest challenges unearthed by the authors.

Among those conclusions: "The veterinary profession is losing its presence in food-animal production and care."

Specifically, the report warned that changes in the structure of livestock production in this country - namely larger numbers of animals on smaller numbers of farms - has changed the demands on veterinary medicine of the typical farm client. On one hand, larger operations now typically delegate routine veterinary procedures to on-farm employees, hiring practicing veterinarians to focus on what the report called "herd health and interventions."

On the other hand, smaller producers in rural areas may not be able to collectively sustain a full-time veterinarian, leading to potential concerns related to animal care and disease detection and prevention.

You can read my full report on the story in the June 11th issue of Feedstuffs, as well as the entire text of the National Research Council report, at Feedstuffs.com.

One of the biggest concerns for animal agriculture is the rising cost of earning a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. With annual tuition costs of upwards of $66,000 per year, the average student graduates with nearly $150,000 in debt, and a starting salary well below half that amount. The debt service, the report concluded, on that much student debt, could amount to $18,000 per year for new members of the profession.

That means it takes the average doc something like a decade to pay off his vet-school loans these days.

The report recommended a number of action steps the veterinary community needs to take to address the major issues facing the profession, including creating "centers of emphasis" on vet school campuses focused on food animal medicine, and considering the use of veterinary technicians to extend animal health services to under-served rural areas.

While the American Association of Bovine Practitioners disputed the notion that the profession was "losing its presence" in food animal production, the organization did acknowledge that the profession faces a number of challenges. AABP's Rural Veterinary Workforce Committee noted that it is examining a number of "non-traditional business plans" to address the changing needs of the industry, including the use of veterinary technicians.

Think about your own farm or ranch - how has your view on veterinary medicine changed in the past 20 years? What do you currently do yourself, or delegate to on-farm employees, that you used to hire the vet to do for you? If you're a smaller operator, would it make more sense to have a veterinary technician visit your farm to help with the routine work, rather than a full-fledged vet?

These are just some of the questions and issues posed by the NRC report. I encourage you to read more in the pages of Feedstuffs next week.

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