Kristine Kozak

Kristine Kozak works on a border collie in her Franklin County office. Kozak, who graduated from the University of Illinois veterinary school in 2018, is one of many vets who are saddled with student debt and balance their practice between pets and farm animals.

THOMPSONVILLE, Ill. — Kristine Kozak has a long career in front of her as a rural veterinarian. She also has a hefty debt load that will likely hang around for years.

The 2018 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is typical among her peers, who face a future of changing demand and shifting priorities.

“Overall, it’s quite a significant burden,” said Kozak, who works out of an office in this Franklin County community of about 550. “I have a payment plan I’m following.”

Like many vets in rural areas, she splits her time between farm animals and pets. That is becoming more and more common today, as relatively few new grads work only in agriculture.

“In general, it seems like there definitely is a trend toward more companion animal veterinarians than pure food veterinarians,” said Illinois State Veterinarian Mark Ernst. “That’s partly because the industry is becoming more integrated on the production animal side. There are fewer veterinarians serving larger clients with more animals.”

Dennis French, who heads the University of Illinois Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine, is well aware of the balance vets must strike between small- and large-animal practice. He grew up in southeastern Minnesota with his veterinarian father, who also performed in both arenas.

“You look at where they’re located. In rural areas, you almost have to do mixed animals just to supply the needs of your clients,” French said. “My father was a veterinarian. He did probably 18 farm animal calls a day, and at night we would work on whatever small animals came in, to care for them as well.”

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, graduates of vet schools in 2018 — Kozak’s class — incurred an average of $143,000 in student debt, an increase of $10,000 from the previous year. The association decries the shortage of graduates going into rural practice.

“There are several recognized food-animal veterinarian shortages in the Midwest and across the country, threatening animal health, public health and the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers,” said AVMA’s Michael San Filippo.

“When communities have inadequate access to veterinary care, the consequences can be widespread. Veterinarians are the best line of defense against animal diseases that can endanger humans, destroy livestock herds and hurt rural economies.”

He added that the debt load graduates take on affects placement.

“Increasing veterinary student debt is partly to blame for these veterinary shortages,” San Filippo said. “High debt loads can make it cost-prohibitive for young veterinarians to practice in rural areas, as rural salaries are often lower than those in urban areas.”

To address the shortage, the USDA, since 2010, has overseen the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, which pays up to $25,000 a year toward the student loan debt of veterinarians who agree to serve in parts of the country that have been identified as veterinary shortage areas.

French said that the University of Illinois vet science program has a strong contingent of students in the school’s production animal club. But that doesn’t always carry to the real world.

“We do a good job of encouraging them to go into that field,” he said. “The true problems are twofold. One is debt. And being able to go out and make a salary that helps pay off the debt and allows you to live in some sort of style.”

Another problem can be finding a partner to work with in a veterinary practice. Like most vets entering the job market, Kozak partnered with a veterinarian at an established practice. She is working on expanding her food-animal customer base, but there are limitations. Most of her commercial work is with beef cattle, though she also works with goats and other large animals.

“There’s not enough business,” she said. “You have to be ambulatory. It’s hard to have a single place. I have a truck, which I use for that.”

As many as 85% of veterinary students are female. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Homer Glen, Kozak had little exposure to agriculture. Her desire was to get into equine veterinary work. Now she is called upon to serve everything from hogs to camels. She sometimes calls on customers who are 90 minutes away from her office.

“I didn’t think about hanging out with cows until I got to vet school,” she said.

Ernst said the supply-and-demand issue isn’t going away.

“It is becoming a little harder for the smaller producer, even like the hobby farmer, to find somebody who’s willing to do that work,” he said. “There’s a limit to what a producer is able to spend for a veterinarian to come out. Yet the veterinarian is going to get the best use of his time. They don’t get paid for driving.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.