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December 15, 2019

Adapting to add rural practices, meet food demands

Decline in food animal veterinarians endangers people, lecturer says
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The number of private practice veterinarians who work with food animals dropped 30% from 2008 to 2018.

Dr. Paul S. Morley, an epidemiologist and director of research for the Texas A&M University Veterinary Education, Research, and Outreach Program, said the decline occurred while overall employment of private practice veterinarians rose 28%. In his lecture for the AVMA Economic Summit 2019, Dr. Morley cited AVMA statistics that show production medicine lost 1,455 veterinarian jobs over the decade.

View of a summit meeting from the back of a room
The AVMA hosted its seventh annual economic summit this October in Chicago. The event attracted 244 attendees. (Photo by Sara Beugen/Shoot My Events)

About 4% of veterinarians focus on the food supply, a massive shift from the profession’s historic ties with agriculture to a focus on pet medicine, Dr. Morley said. Too few enter or stay in livestock medicine to replenish the aging field.

“Part of that has to do with animal densities, right?” he said. “We have consolidation of animal populations, and people just are less likely to have ever been around food-producing animals.”

Rural practices also endure a perception—sometimes true—that they lack features of modern practices or the ability to provide high-level medicine, he said. Veterinary specialists at teaching hospitals instruct students on aspects of medicine, but veterinary colleges lack generalists who work in mixed animal practice.

“I really believe that lack of modeling is hugely influential in what our veterinary students do,” he said.

A veterinarian in an urban area can thrive on a small portion of the market for veterinary services, but a livestock-focused practitioner may need to count half the region’s producers among the practice’s clients, Dr. Morley said. That rural practitioner needs to decide whether a community can sustain a veterinary practice with enough income left over to pay veterinarians’ educational debt and let them live well.

“Fewer people are willing to think about taking a chance of being entrepreneurial in a rural, mixed practice setting,” he said.

Adapting practices

Dr. Morley gave one of the summit’s two lectures focused on issues in agriculture, along with Dr. Kemba L. Marshall, director of veterinary services for Purina Animal Nutrition. Dr. Marshall said people want meat from animals raised without antimicrobials, and food producers are adapting by testing alternatives. To improve digestive health, for example, the products include yeasts that can aid rumen fermentation, microbes that can compete with pathogens or make gut conditions unfavorable for them, and feeds that aid beneficial gut microbes.

Dr. Marshall said veterinarians can help clients understand the products, their potential effects, and the evidence behind them. After reviewing scientific literature, a veterinarian may propose a field trial that could benefit the farm at low cost and give the manufacturer data.

Veterinarians need to shift how they provide value to clients, she said. As farms transition away from antimicrobial use, veterinarians can help reduce illness by improving air quality and the cleanliness of buildings or containers used for feed and water.

Retaining and replenishing supply

U.S.-based veterinary associations connected with cattle, swine, poultry, and small ruminants also encourage veterinary students and early career veterinarians through training, scholarships, grants, job fairs, training, externship programs, and mentoring programs.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners, for example, helps recent graduates transition into cattle practice through its recent graduate conference. Dr. K. Fred Gingrich, executive director of the AABP, said the conference helps build skills and a sense of community, which helps because rural practice can feel isolating.

The AABP also is one year into a mentoring program, through which recent graduates and prospective mentors each apply for matching by the type of help needed, whether it’s general dairy practice or business management. And the organization runs Department of Agriculture–funded practice management workshops that are available to all rural practitioners, regardless of AABP membership, with instruction from business specialists who can help veterinarians make more money and transition into ownership.

Dr. Gingrich said the AABP Foundation also administers three scholarship programs to help student AABP members decrease their educational debt. It also delivers grants for externships that reduce the cost to expose veterinary students to cattle practice and give them skills they can use on modern beef and dairy operations. The AABP also encourages student attendance at annual meetings with free registration and a job fair.

Dr. Morley wants to start a program at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences through which students can spend 10 days working on cattle and visualize working in agriculture. Universities also need to recruit students with agriculture exposure, as well as identify promising students who can be mentored toward veterinary careers.

“We need to integrate agribusiness as a core concept of training veterinarians,” he said.

Starting in fall 2021, veterinary students at Texas A&M also will be able to gain training on agricultural and rural practice by spending half their time in veterinary school with the Veterinary Education, Research & Outreach program. The program is on the West Texas A&M University campus in the Texas Panhandle, near beef and dairy producers.

Ignoring the declining numbers of food supply veterinarians endangers society, Dr. Morley said. 

“We have a global grand challenge of feeding the world,” he said. “I take it very seriously that the activities that I do relate to a wholesome safe food supply for our communities, communities beyond here, and around the world.”