Dr. Austin Ayars had plenty of sleepless nights as a practice owner with $140,000 in student debt. He would lie awake worrying whether he would be able to pay the bills that month. Or he'd think about what would happen if he couldn't meet his clients' needs. He even considered the fact that if he died, his wife would receive half a million dollars and be relieved of his debt.
||Dr. Austin Ayars
||Dr. Scott Morey
||Dr. Shaw Perrin
||Dr. Kay Russo
||Dr. Conrad Spangler
Dr. Ayars rests much easier now, thanks to the $100,000 in loan repayments he will receive from the AVMA/American Veterinary Medical Foundation Food Animal Veterinarian Recruitment and Retention Program. He is one of five winners announced Oct. 4.
FAVRRP, which launched in April, is an economic assistance program that provides student loan debt forgiveness to bring more veterinarians into food animal practice (see JAVMA, March 15, 2010).
"This year, the average debt for new graduates from veterinary school was over $130,000. This school loan forgiveness program will help support veterinarians who want to pursue a career in food animal medicine that might otherwise not be able to afford to work in underserved areas," said Dr. Larry M. Kornegay, president of the AVMA.
According to a Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition study, the demand for food animal veterinarians will increase 12 to 13 percent between 2004 and 2016. Conversely, the supply of such practitioners will fall short by 4 percent.
Specifically, a 3.5 percent shortage of dairy cattle practitioners is predicted, as is a 4.6 percent shortage of beef cattle practitioners, a 5 percent shortage of food supply veterinarians in academia, and a 5.3 percent shortage of veterinarians in federal food safety and food security.
The program's selection committee chose five individuals to receive up to $100,000 each over a four-year period. They are Drs. Ayars (OSU '07) of Phoenix; Scott Morey (KSU '10) of Concordia, Kan; Shaw Perrin (OSU '10) of Goshen, Ind.; Kay Russo (COR '10) of Stephenville, Texas; and Conrad Spangler (MIN '09) of Dalhart, Texas. Mean student debt for this year's FAVRRP recipients is about $150,000. Carrying that kind of burden is a huge weight on a person's shoulders, the FAVRRP winners say, and only adds to the stress that comes with being a recent graduate.
Complicating matters, Dr. Russo said, was finding that jobs weren't easy to come by this year, particularly for food animal veterinarians like her. She felt fortunate to end up working at Integrated Dairy Services in Stephenville, Texas, which deals with a number of large dairy farms.
Low milk-price margins for dairy farmers mean less money available for expenses, she said. Consequently, many of these farmers aren't using the services of veterinarians as much as they used to.
"They have to cut costs somewhere, and depending on the farmer, it's products or services, which happens to be vets in a lot of areas," Dr. Russo said. The lower demand for veterinary services, in turn, causes fewer food animal veterinarians to hire new graduates.
Dr. Perrin said those challenges simply mean a veterinarian's job description changes as farmers do more treatments on their own.
"We have to figure out new ways to help them and be useful to them," he said.
At this point, he doesn't have many other options. Dr. Perrin, who entered veterinary school later in life, admits that it was a difficult choice to make.
"It was hard to give up the income and scary because tuition was raised 8 to 12 percent most every year I was there. And we don't make what human doctors make," Dr. Perrin said.
Still, he said he's glad he ended up at Dairy Veterinary and Management Services in Goshen, Ind., where he sees a diverse set of clients, ranging from 30-cow to 2,000-cow farms and including farms that incorporate organic, confinement, or conventional production methods.
Dr. Spangler, who is about 10 years younger than Dr. Perrin, said being responsible for a six-figure student debt isn't easy at any age. He has a good job now, working at the Circle H Headquarters in Dalhart, Texas, which has seen a boost in work, thanks to a large cheese plant that moved in a few years ago. But he remembers talking with his parents before veterinary school about the likelihood of incurring $200,000 in debt if he went out of state.
They told him in the long run it wouldn't be so bad, so he took their world for it. Then, during the fourth year of veterinary school, the reality of his situation started to sink in for Dr. Spangler.
"Once I realized that, I said to my parents, 'Remember when you said it wasn't going to be that bad? Well now it's coming back around and it won't be that much fun.'"
FAVRRP, these veterinarians say, not only saves them from constantly worrying about their finances and future, but it also gives them a sense of accomplishment.
Dr. Perrin said having most of his loan paid off will make it possible from him to prepare for retirement, buy a home, and give back to the community.
"Also, it feels good to be supported. It says to me, 'We value food animal veterinarians. We support you. We're trying to contribute to a safe food supply and the well-being of cows,'" he said. "This is helping America keep a strong agriculture base."
But the FAVRRP recipients understand that the benefits extend far beyond themselves.
"It's good for someone like my boss to have someone who wants to do (food animal medicine), and the loan forgiveness takes pressure off me to make a whole lot of money. This allows me to decide where I'm going to head for other reasons, not just financially based," said Dr. Morey, who now works at the Tallgrass Veterinary Hospital in Concordia, Kan.
Dr. Russo thinks loan repayment could be an effective incentive for veterinarians who want to go into food animal practice but aren't entirely sure about the rural aspect.
"Lots of agricultural areas are a bit tough to live in. People might be less apt to move into an area that needs veterinarians, especially if they didn't grow up there. I hope this will encourage vets to enter into this field and go places they wouldn't normally go to practice," she said.
In all, the program received more than 100 applications from veterinarians whose scholarly and career focus was food animal medicine.
The AVMF administers the application process and payments for the FAVRRP. The Foundation also assisted the selection committee in choosing recipients.
Each winner has agreed to work in a qualified U.S. food animal practice—i.e., a practice that derives half or more of its revenue from food animal services—for a four-year period.
The recipients will receive payments that can be applied to their student loan debt for every 12 months of continuous practice during the four years, assuming they remain in a qualifying practice. Payments will be on a graduated basis.
The program's sponsors are Pfizer Animal Health, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Elanco Animal Health, Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health, Phibro Animal Health, AVMF, and AVMA.
Whether the program will be extended another year has yet to be determined.