After Garrett R. Stewart graduates from the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine this spring, he'll go on to be a food animal practitioner in his hometown of Washington, Kan.
He'll have some company, too, as 28 of the 108 veterinary students who graduated in 2009 from K-State went into food animal or mixed animal practice. Thirty-seven graduates did so in 2008.
Compared with what's happening nationally, however, Stewart is considered a rarity.
Food animal practitioners now make up fewer than 10 percent of the veterinarians in the United States, according to a 2006 study by the Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Coalition, meaning only about 8,900 veterinarians are involved in food animal practice.
A new initiative led by the AVMA is hoping to help reverse this trend. The AVMA/AVMF Food Animal Veterinarian Recruitment and Retention Program is an economic assistance program that provides student loan debt forgiveness for veterinarians who meet the requirements.
The aim of the pilot program, which officially launches April 1, is to bring more veterinarians back into food animal practice.
Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Elanco Animal Health, Fort Dodge (Pfizer), Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health, Pfizer Animal Health, and Phibro Animal Health all have contributed funds to make the program possible. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation will administer the application process and payments. The Foundation will also assist the selection committee in choosing recipients. Applications for the program are available at www.avmf.org.
AVMA CEO W. Ron DeHaven said the program is consistent with the Association's veterinary workforce goal of addressing the critical shortage of food animal practitioners.
"I think this program will complement (the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program), and it adds private sector funding to limited federal funds," Dr. DeHaven said.
The VMLRP was authorized by the National Veterinary Medical Service Act passed by Congress more than seven years ago. That program also aims to help qualified veterinarians offset a substantial portion of their educational debt in return for service in certain high-priority veterinary shortage situations.
The selected veterinarian shortage areas and application forms for the VMLRP will be published in the Federal Register April 30. Applicants will then have 60 days to apply for the program. Offers to selected individuals will be made by Sept. 30.
The FAVRRP, which will start accepting applications as soon as this spring, hopes to have five initial participants selected in time for the AVMA Annual Convention, July 31-Aug. 3. Second-, third-, and fourth-year students are encouraged to apply, although individuals who have graduated within the past four years will also be considered.
Approved participants must agree to work in a qualified food animal practice—that is, a practice that derives half or more of its revenue from food animal services.
They will receive payments that can be applied to their student loan debt for every 12 months of continuous practice for four years, assuming they remain in a qualifying practice. Payments will be on a graduated basis over the four-year period, not to exceed $100,000 total.
Sponsors will make a determination this fall whether to extend the program.
The program first began when Dr. Robert C. Hummel of Greeley, Colo., approached Dr. DeHaven more than a year ago about creating a scholarship program for food animal veterinary students.
Dr. Hummel is co-founder of Great Plains Chemical Co., which is now Lextron Inc. Through his business contacts, he has seen firsthand the declining number of veterinarians in the food animal industry.
"As the senior practitioners near(ed) retirement, it became obvious there was a shrinking supply of people to take their places," Dr. Hummel said.
He became concerned over whether his clients would continue to have access to the services of veterinary practitioners, including prescription writing.
That initial conversation between Drs. DeHaven and Hummel turned into a working relationship among a group of interested parties, including leaders of veterinary industry and academia.
Dr. DeHaven said the program has proved to be a good collaborative partnership between the AVMA, AVMF, veterinary schools and colleges, and corporate sponsors.
"What's good for veterinarians is good for companies that provide products to veterinary professionals," Dr. DeHaven said.
Clint Lewis, president of U.S. Operations for Pfizer Animal Health, said his company was proud to support FAVRRP.
"We recognize and salute the difference that veterinarians make (in) the health and well-being of all animals, but in livestock, we also know the very special role that food animal veterinarians play in sustaining a safe and abundant food supply," Lewis said. "Pfizer believes that its investment in this program is critical if we are to increase veterinary students' interest in pursuing a food animal career. I would hope that other industry partners and interested individuals will join with us in supporting this critical program."
The problem in recruiting and retaining more large animal veterinarians is nothing new.
For years, burdensome student loans, low starting salaries, the decline of family farms, and rural lifestyle issues have contributed to this vexing problem. It has gotten to the point that only 15 percent of veterinary school graduates go into large animal or mixed animal private practice.
The situation doesn't appear to be getting better. The demand for food supply veterinarians will increase by nearly 13 percent between 2004 and 2016, according to the FSVMC study. Conversely, the supply of such practitioners will fall short by 4 percent.
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.
One of the deterring factors, Stewart said, is that a negative perception has been created about food animal work and how hard it is.
"Not to say it isn't difficult, but I don't think an accurate picture has been painted of rural areas and food animal medicine," he said. "If they're not from an urban background, they're not used to the appeal. They're scared. They've heard their entire lives that food animal medicine is extremely hard (on the body), but I can argue that it's just as physically taxing being an emergency vet, working from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m."
Personally, Stewart said, it wasn't so much a decision to go into food animal medicine as it was a lifestyle in which he was born and raised.
"It's a wonderful industry and … takes you to the next level in agriculture with veterinary medicine. You're not only working with good people in a good industry, but you're also working with animals and people who understand the responsibility of producing a healthy, safe, and nutritious product for the food supply," Stewart said.
For more information on the food animal veterinarian shortage, visit the AVMA's Food Supply Veterinary Medicine Web site at www.avma.org/fsvm.
To learn more about the AVMA/AVMF Food Animal Veterinarian Recruitment and Retention Program, visit the Foundation's Web Site at www.avmf.org.