Livestock are a major part of Virginia agriculture. But there are fewer and fewer vets for farm animals.

By: - July 13, 2021 12:01 am

Dairy cows graze in Stanley, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For The Virginia Mercury)

For many years, Buckingham County, home to tens of thousands of cows, goats, sheep and hogs, had no veterinarians devoted to treating livestock. 

“There just was nobody in the county,” said Ivan Davis, a cattle operator and president of the Buckingham Farm Bureau. And, “when you need a vet, you need a vet.” 

Today, Buckingham is on better footing, with several practices in operation. But other areas around Virginia haven’t been so lucky. This year, four regions of the commonwealth covering 22 different counties have applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for funds intended to entice large-animal veterinarians to rural regions, citing shortages of the vital professionals. 

Despite recording nearly 200,000 in annual hog sales in 2017, the counties of Surry, Suffolk, Southampton, Suffolk and Isle of Wight are served by only one swine veterinarian, reads one request. “Previous efforts to attract and retain swine veterinarians in this area have been limited to the efforts of existing swine companies. Those companies have described long working hours, required travel in the practice area, and the difficulty of luring food animal practitioners to rural southeastern Virginia while peers work the more lucrative urban areas of the commonwealth.”   

“For at least three decades this has been a concern,” said Norm Hyde, a video production supervisor for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation who has produced an episode of the organization’s “Real Virginia” program on vet shortages. “A livestock farmer needs a good veterinarian partner.” 

Livestock remain a major part of Virginia agriculture: in 2017, the commonwealth reported almost 1.5 million cattle, roughly 250,000 hogs and pigs, 49,000 goats and 83,000 sheep and lambs, worth hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. All of them will likely need some kind of veterinary care during their lifetime, if only an exam.

In 2010, in response to legislation by the General Assembly, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine issued a report on large-animal veterinary shortages that predicted “a moderate to severe shortage in food animal veterinarians in private and public sectors over the next 20 years.” 

“Rural veterinary practices that serve distributed farming operations have difficulty becoming and remaining profitable,” the report found. “The current shortage, especially in rural areas, will worsen unless such practices can be made economically viable.” 

Farmers and veterinarians readily acknowledge some of the inherent challenges of attracting talent to the large-animal field. 

Rural practices by their very nature cover far-flung areas, meaning vets must spend significant portions of their day on the road rather than conducting visits that bring in income. Large-animal work also tends to occur at more unpredictable times than small-animal work, which can be handled through emergency centers at night or on weekends.

“You will get on a regular basis the 2 a.m. call that the calf is the wrong way in the womb and it’s not coming out,” said Hyde.

And, of course, treating livestock is physically strenuous. 

“You can’t do large-animal medicine without getting dinged pretty good at least once or twice a year,” said Bruce Bowman, a retired field veterinarian with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He cited one mantra his private practice had: “The pain never goes away; it just moves around.”  

Sheep in Stanley, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For The Virginia Mercury)

Still, large service areas, unpredictability and physical stress have long been pressures on the profession. Now, however, broader changes in American society are exacerbating the problem, said some farmers and veterinarians. 

One is the continuing loss of farmers and farm families. “There are fewer and fewer farm kids who are entering the pipeline for veterinary medicine because there are fewer and fewer farmers,” said Bowman. As large-animal veterinarians age out of the profession, the pool of people willing to take their place may not be sufficient. 

In Virginia, the loss of dairy farms is likely playing a role. These operations “were one of the principal consumers of veterinarians, because you had large herds of cattle that needed to be taken care of on a daily basis,” said Hyde. 

With those herds shrinking and dairy farms shuttering, demand may be drying up. In that case, the reason behind some shortages may be simple economics: “A vet is not there because there’s not enough work,” said Charles Broaddus, Virginia’s state veterinarian. 

Another hypothesis for ongoing shortages looks to the profession’s changing demographics. For years, many farmers and veterinarians thought only men could handle the physical rigors of large-animal veterinary medicine. Today, however, women make up more than 60 percent of practitioners in veterinary medicine as a whole, but Bowman said many aren’t flocking to large-animal work. Whether that’s because of long-held views on gender, a desire for more flexibility to accommodate childrearing or sexism, as one small British study found, isn’t clear. 

That may be changing slowly. 

“Some of my best large-animal veterinarians are females,” said Bowman. “We have gradually moved away from the old notion that only males were able to do large-animal work.”

Solutions to increasingly perennial shortages remain elusive. Debt repayment programs like the USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, which was established in 2003, have had some success in wooing farm animal veterinarians into underserved areas by offering forgiveness of up to $25,000 of educational debt in exchange for three years of service in shortage regions, but there’s no guarantee the practitioners will remain in the area afterward. 

At the end of the day, said Broaddus, “it depends on if the veterinarians want to be there and the producers need them there.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]