As a livestock producer, a herd veterinarian is critical to the operation. They offer herd health, as well as reproductive and nutritional management insight. They are on-hand to stitch up horses, help with calving issues and some are even prepared to work on the family dog if need be.
An increasing problem for some producers, especially those who live and operate in rural areas, is an actual shortage of large animal veterinarians. This means when that heifer needs an emergency C-section or the cattle need to be preg-checked in the fall or the ewes need ultra-sounds, the nearest vet may be hours away.
The hard statistics are even more rattling. According to an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) market statistics report published in 2018, only 1.8 percent of U.S. veterinarians practice exclusively on food animals and a mere 5.7 percent are considered “mixed-practice.” This is compared to the 66.6 percent of employed veterinarians that practice exclusively on companion animals.
Even though the shortage of large animal veterinarians is very real, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Veterinary schools across the county continue to graduate top-notch students and although they are the minority, there are still some that wish to pursue a career as a rural, large animal veterinarian.
Take for example Dalen Wood. The Big Timber, Mont., native recently graduated from Washington State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Eventually, Wood would like to be a mixed-practice veterinarian serving in a rural area, possibly even back home in Montana.
Wood grew up with a background in team roping. Horses and sports were a big part of his life, so in high school Wood began to find interest in physiology. He initially went to college majoring in cell biology and neuroscience with medical school as the end goal, but one fateful day he had a conversation with a veterinarian.
“My background in agriculture mixed with my interest in physiology and medicine, so I decided to apply to veterinary school instead of medical school,” Wood reflected.
Like many from Montana, Wood participated in the WIMU regional veterinary program, which allows vet students from Montana State University, University of Idaho and Utah State University to do their first year of vet school at their respective institutions. They then do years 2-4 at Washington State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and are allowed to pay in-state tuition the whole way through.
“After the first year in a class of 10 at Bozeman, we all go to Pullman, Wash., where the entire graduating veterinary class was around 128,” said Wood.
Wood said the lower student to teacher ratio in Bozeman was really nice. The tight knit group of 10 students really developed a camaraderie and the combination prepared the students for a successful run at veterinary school.
While at school, Wood noticed that like the real world demographics, the majority of his classmates where interested in exclusively practicing on small animals. The smaller percentage that were interested in mixed-practice or large animal weren’t necessarily thinking a rural practice either.
Recently graduated and certified veterinarians are just like any other fresh college graduate. Job hunting can be stressful and because of the tremendous student debt most vet students acquire, a competitive paying job is essential. There are incentivized programs that partially pay off the student debt of those that choose to practice in a rural setting, but by-in-large, the economics of practicing in a rural setting aren’t as favorable as, say, joining a corporate or urban practice. There are other factors that may play into the rural vet shortage, too, like lack of personal connection to a particular rural community.
For Wood, practicing in a rural setting is actually very appealing. He has signed on to complete an equine-based internship south of Salt Lake City, but after, Wood is very interested in practicing on all animals – large and small.
“I spent four years learning about cats and dogs, ruminants and equine, so why wouldn’t I want to practice on all of them,” Wood stated.
Wood also emphasized practicing in a rural setting provides an opportunity for him to give back. A lot of the scholarships he attained through his education came from small town organizations. He realizes that people in less populated areas need veterinary help and Wood says offering his services is just one way he can say thank you for the support he has received over the years.
There is no doubt that veterinarians are very essential to the everyday lives of so many individuals. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused issues with the job market for recent vet school grads, but hopefully things will even out and some of the newly christened veterinarians will find success practicing in a rural setting.