If you are one of the estimated 10,000 cattle producers in Mississippi, you may have faced a challenge in finding a veterinarian to treat a sick or injured animal right away.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nationally in 2010 - the most recent year for which statistics are available - about 6 percent of veterinarians specialized in equine veterinary medicine, about 8 percent practiced exclusively or predominantly on food animals, and another 7 percent had mixed-animal practices. By contrast, two-thirds of the nation's veterinarians in 2010 were practicing exclusively on companion animals (dogs, cats and other small animals). The trend toward small-animal practices is believed to have continued, as increasing numbers of vet school graduates opt for more lucrative pet practices to pay off six-figure student loans sooner.
It's an issue here in Mississippi, too.
"There are plenty of vets out there; there's just a shortage of those offering large animal services," said Andy Berry, executive vice president of the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association. "It's a problem anytime you have less availability. Where it affects you is it may take longer for someone to get to you."
For routine veterinary procedures, a few hours or even days may not be crucial, but securing an animal doctor quickly to deliver a breech calf or to treat a horse with pneumonia could mean the difference between recovery and death for the animals in question.
Lee Chrestman, one of Lafayette County's bigger cattle producers, said, "There's sure a shortage of veterinarians. His usual practitioner, Dr. Randy McWhirter of Pontotoc, has cut back on his practice, Chrestman said.
If an emergency arises when McWhirter isn't available, "I handle it. That's all you can do," Chrestman said. He notes having helped a neighbor with a difficult calf birth just last week.
"I get a lot of those phone calls," he said. "I've pulled a lot of calves, put a lot of prolapses back in."
Dr. David Hidalgo of Amory shares a veterinary practice with his wife, Dr. Pat Hidalgo. He primarily practices on large animals, while she treats mostly pets.
"There is a perception that there are too few large-animal veterinarians," he said, noting that the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine is conducting a survey of both veterinarians and producers to try to clarify the issues.
"They're asking producers what they're willing to do, what they would pay, and what services they want," Hidalgo said. "My thoughts are that good, old American capitalism will be the answer. When there's a way for people to make money, there'll be plenty of supply."
He said producers ideally should have a veterinarian help with preventive herd health from vaccinations to pregnancy health checks and bull breeding soundness exams. Those who don't may be the most vocal about getting a vet's help in an emergency.
"If he's used a veterinarian once in the last year, that's not enough for him to be crying about not having a vet immediately available," Hidalgo said. "I don't know that a veterinarian needs to go out and treat all animals, but the veterinarian needs to be involved enough for the producer to know his recommended treatment protocols."
Hidalgo said another complication in making a living as a large-animal veterinarian is that fewer people raise cattle than in previous generations.
"Even 20 years ago, the county we live in was full of cattle," he said. "When the market went down, a lot of the small producers got out and never got back in."
"Large-animal medicine is a great way of life. You're out in the open; you're using your physical abilities as well as your mental abilities. There would be plenty of people who would like to do it if enough people were willing to pay for their services."
Dr. Carla Huston, a former private-practice, large-animal veterinarian who is now an associate professor at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said there is clearly a shortage in some areas.
One contribution to the shortage of large-animal vets is the change in veterinary focus over the past several decades.
"Veterinarians were originally there to take care of horses in the army," Huston said. Later, the health of food animals - typically beef and dairy cattle in Mississippi - became the impetus for most veterinary work, she said, for reasons of both economics and public health.
"In the last 50 years we've seen their focus move from food animals to companion animals."
Whether related or not, one reality in veterinary medicine is that the vast majority of new vets are women. At MSU, veterinary classes over the past five years have numbered between 75 and 80 percent female students, said Rich Meiring, assistant dean for admissions at the veterinary college.
Huston said the stereotype that large-animal vets are muscular men often isn't accurate.
"We have a lot of students who want to practice large-animal veterinary medicine," she said. Economics, not personal size or strength, is the most common barrier, with MSU CVM graduates leaving school with an average of $140,000 in student debt.
"It's difficult for a veterinarian to make a good business model in food animal practice, especially depending on the population," Huston said. "We work hard on trying to train our students in business, but the reality of it, financially, is that that person can make more money doing small animal work. Our farms are 20, 30, 40 miles out. You put someone in a truck driving between appointments, and he or she can't see nearly as many animals as in a clinic.
"That young person may love cows and want to go back home and establish a food-animal practice, but if they've got $1,200 a month in student loan payments for 20 years and if they can make 125 percent more by going to town, it's hard to keep them on the farm," Huston said.
Incentives are available for new or prospective large-animal veterinarians. The Cattlemen's Association provides scholarships for veterinary students committed to food-animal practice, and the USDA has a Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program that covers up to $25,000 in student debt payments per year for three years.
Of four participants in Mississippi's first cohort in that program, Huston said, "All four of them are still practicing food animal veterinary medicine."--Errol Castens, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
What has been your experience with large-animal vets? Have you had trouble finding vet care for your farm animals? Let us know in the comments.