The Van Trump Report

America’s Large Animal Veterinarian Shortage is Barreling Toward Crisis Levels

Livestock producers all across the US are dealing with a serious shortage of large and food animal veterinarians. According to the USDA, in 2023, the shortage or rural veterinarians has reached an all-time high, with 500 counties in 46 states deemed as having a critical shortage of large animal vets. The shortfall poses risks to not only livestock and farmers, but the country’s food supply. Unfortunately, it looks like the shortage is only going to deepen as the pipeline of new veterinarians – especially those who specialize in large and agricultural animals – continues to stagnate.

Veterinarians involved in food supply veterinary medicine, commonly referred to as “food animal veterinarians”, or FAVs, are particularly important for maintaining the safety of America’s food supply. They are also a frontline defense against disease, including infections like Avian Influenza and African Swine Fever that can have devastating effects on livestock and farm finances, as well as foreign trade. The need for food animal veterinarians has also increased in recent years with the introduction of additional policy measures such as the Food Safety Modernization Act and changes to the Veterinary Feed Directive.

A report compiled by Clinton Neill of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, found that of the thousands of veterinary school graduates each year, only 3-4% are choosing a food animal-focused practice. Neil says this does not bode well, given that food animal veterinarians currently make up about 5% of the total veterinarian population. Meaning there is likely to be more decline in food animal veterinarians in the near future as older veterinarians retire and leave the industry and the number of graduates remains below replacement rate. Neil also points out that this is a stark contrast to 40 years ago, when around 40% of veterinarians focused on food animals.

A confluence of factors has led to the precipitous drop-off of large animal vets over the years, according to Neill. One of those is the growing pet sector that is outpacing the earning potential of other fields of veterinary medicine. Recruiting and retaining recent graduates in rural areas may also be difficult due to their lack of familiarity with large animals. Veterinary schools today primarily focus on companion animal medicine rather than food animal medicine.

High education debt also makes veterinary medicine less attractive. According to John Hopkins, graduating veterinarians acquire debt at twice the starting annual income, and a fifth of students have a debt-to-income ratio as high as 4:1. The time and costs of going through veterinary school are similar to those of medical school; both require four years of higher education, and the average student loan debt is approximately $200,000. However, a veterinarian’s mean starting salary for full-time employment is less than half of the starting salary range for a human physician.

Stephanie Mercier, senior policy advisor at the Farm Journal Foundation, which commissioned Neill’s study, warns that the vet shortage can lead to dire consequences at the producer level. “If a farmer has to wait several hours for a vet to be able to show up and look at an animal, it raises the risk that not only will that animal get sicker and die, but also potentially infect the rest of the population.” Mercier adds that there is a failure among politicians and the general public to connect the dots between rising meat prices and the lack of food animal vets.

Two US Senators – Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) – in September introduced the “Rural Veterinary Workforce Act,” which would provide incentives to practice in underserved areas. The act would create tax exemptions for payments received under the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VLMRP) and similar programs, allowing veterinarians to receive tax incentives similar to doctors and other health professionals. More than 100 national and state organizations signed a public letter urging Congress to pass the bill. A companion bill has also been introduced in the House of Representatives. (Sources: NIFA, Farm Bureau, John Hopkins, Ambrook Research)

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  1. Pingback: Illinois Farm Bureau Program Tackles Vet Shortage | Prairie Communications, LLC

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