When farmers in eastern Colorado need a vet, Dr. Lora Bledsoe makes farm calls. All of the equipment she needs to provide exams, preventive care, birthing assistance, and dental and field surgical services for cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and horses is in the back of her pickup truck.
Until Bledsoe started Bledsoe Mobile Vet in 2017, farmers near her home base of Hugo, Colorado, struggled to access vet care for their livestock.
“In our area, there was a need … for someone to dedicate [his or her] time to large animals,” she says. “We have one veterinarian for every 85,000 food animals, and that’s me. I serve farms across 7,300 square miles.”
Bledsoe is one of a dwindling number of large animal veterinarians. In fact, just 10 and a half percent of veterinarians focus on treating livestock, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. The nationwide shortage of farm vets led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to designate 187 areas, mostly in rural communities, with insufficient access to veterinary services.
A combination of factors (rising educational costs, student debt burden, lower salaries, lack of willingness for rural relocation) have contributed to the shortage of large animal veterinarians. This is according to veterinarian Angel Abuelo, an assistant professor in the department of large animal clinical sciences at Michigan State University.
“We have less and less the students that [come to vet school] with some farm or rural background … or significant exposure to livestock,” he says. “We do our best to get them exposed to career options in rural and livestock practices, but most veterinarians still go into small animal practices after graduation.”
Addressing the Need
A shortage of farm veterinarians could have implications for food safety. Large animal veterinarians monitor the health of farm animals, provide vaccinations and treat illnesses, ensuring diseased animals don’t make it into our food supply.
“We have to have veterinary care in order to manage herd health,” says Thom Hadley, executive director of The College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. “The long-term sustainability of our food products is reason enough … to make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep as many veterinarians in the rural communities as possible.”
Providing financial incentives to encourage veterinarians to treat livestock and join practices in rural areas is proving popular. In 2010, the USDA funded the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program to provide loan repayment assistance to veterinarians who agreed to practice in areas experiencing shortages. To date, the program has placed large animal veterinarians in 415 designated shortage areas in 45 states. Several states have introduced similar programs.
Bledsoe, who graduated from Colorado State University with more than $130,000 in student loans, applied for VMLRP four times. In 2017, she received news that she qualified for $75,000 in repayment assistance—spread out over three years—to support her work in rural Colorado.
Several colleges, including Colorado State University, the University of Minnesota, Kansas State University and Michigan State University, are also providing loan forgiveness to veterinarians committed to working in rural communities. Funding is limited and the competition is intense.
Bledsoe believes that schools also need to focus their curriculum on preparing veterinarians to pursue careers in large animal medicine, explaining, “You have to understand where producers are coming from, the pressures in the industry and the production side of farming as well as the medicine side to be able to help [farmers].”
The Struggle to Subsist
Even with the knowledge and experience to excel in the field, working for a large animal practice can still be challenging.
In 2019, veterinarian Amy Jordan decided to stop treating the cattle, sheep, goats, horses and pigs that had been a beloved part of her practice at Bear Creek Veterinary Hospital in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina.
“When I started this practice, large animal medicine was what I committed my life to and there I was letting it go,” Jordan says. “What made the decision so difficult for me was feeling like I let the community down … I had clients call me in tears asking, ‘What are we going to do? We don’t have anybody else.’”
In North Carolina, state law requires veterinarians to provide access to around-the-clock care. Jordan could refer small animals to local emergency clinics, but, without similar options for farm animals, her team of large animal veterinarians was forced to be on call 24/7.
The grueling schedule and lower salaries (veterinarians working with rural areas make up to one-third less than those working in urban areas) made it too difficult for Jordan and her staff to continue making farm calls.
Helping Hobby Farmers
When large animal veterinarians struggle, farmers struggle, too.
“Small producers are usually the ones that have more problems getting access to veterinary services and care,” Abuelo says.
Making farm calls requires a lot of travel time. A small animal veterinarian can see multiple dogs and cats in a clinic in the same amount of time it takes for a livestock veterinarian to make two farm calls.
Jordan points out that in states such as Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma where ranches might be located hundreds of miles apart, veterinarians are either on contract with large producers and schedule appointments to see dozens of animals in a single visit or require farmers to transport their animals to the clinic.
“Hobby farmers have to be willing to put their goat on a trailer and take it to the vet,” she says. “There might not be a vet who’s willing to come out to you, and the farther out you live, the harder it will be [to find a vet willing to do a farm call].”
The shortage of large animal veterinarians also puts the onus on hobby farmers to learn how to provide preventive care and treat minor ailments. Bledsoe suggests developing a relationship with a veterinarian who is willing to provide guidance over phone or text and can offer an honest assessment about when a problem requires a farm call and when a DIY solution will work.
Supporting your local farm vet, she says, is more important than ever.
“Veterinarians are on the front lines and can be a huge resource to producers,” Bledsoe says. “It might take you a while to find a vet because there are fewer and fewer of us but, when you do, get behind them. My business is going gangbusters because the community has been behind it from the beginning. If [large animal] vets are going to stick around, they need to feel that support.”
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.