Farm vet shortage

A cow specialist with Purdue University’s Farm Animal Hospital makes a visit to a dairy operation.

When a cow needs medical treatment at Hagedorn Dairy Farm, the family-owned operation doesn’t call a veterinarian. That’s because there aren’t any around.

They used to have a vet they called in emergencies, but that provider stopped seeing farm animals more than five years ago.

“We’ve been on our own after that for the most part,” said Jeremy Hagedorn, who helps run the farm of 120 cows between Evansville and Louisville in Perry County.

Since then, the family has made do by learning how to treat their animals as best as possible, but that doesn’t always work out. Cows sometimes die that could have been saved by a vet. When that happens, they butcher it and sell the meat to cut their losses.

Doing medical treatment in-house generally works out, Hagedorn said, but there are times when having a farm vet nearby could mean the difference between life and death for one of their cows.

Such medical professionals are rare in Perry County, which is part of a five-county region considered a “veterinary desert” for hundreds of animal producers in dire need of services, according to the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.

Perry County is one of 36 Indiana counties that have been designated as a farm vet shortage area by the board. Producers in those areas have extremely limited access to professional care, and some counties have no access at all.

In a seven-county region in southwestern Indiana with more than 3,350 registered animal farms, just nine qualified farm-animal vets are available — and their practices are sharply focused on treating pets.

Two of those practitioners are retiring soon and most other clinics there aren’t taking new clients, leading one local vet to describe the situation as “apocalyptic,” according to an animal health board grant-request form.

As many farm vets retire and others switch to treating pets, that shortage is projected to only get worse in Indiana.

It’s a dangerous trend. Fewer animal populations receiving medical care means food safety, animal welfare and public health are all in jeopardy as diseases like bovine tuberculosis, avian influenza and African swine flu make a comeback, according to State Veterinarian Bret Marsh, head of the animal health board.

“If we don’t have veterinarians watching in these populations of swine and birds, then we may miss those diseases, and that presents a huge challenge for our state and for the country,” he explained.

HEAD HUNTING FOR VETS

Grant Hinder, owner of DownHome Veterinary Clinic in New Salisbury, has been trying to hire another farm animal vet for over a year to help meet the crushing need for services in Harrison, Crawford and Floyd counties.

No one has applied. In a way, he can’t blame them.

Farm vet shortage

Grant Hinder owns and operates DownHome Veterinary Clinic in New Salisbury. He has been trying to hire another farm animal vet for more than a year without success.

“I hate to say it, but in veterinary medicine, we all know that your small animals are your bread and butter,” Hinder said. “Your large animals, you do it because you love it. ... You’re not going to make bank or become rich off of doing it.”

For many farm vets, providing services is a catch-22, he noted. If vets charge what they should to make a profit, most farmers can’t afford them. The situation isn’t appealing to recent veterinary school graduates, who are often saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt.

“You could sit in a heated office and see 10 dogs in three hours,” Hinder said. “Or you could go out and stand in 10-degree weather covered in blood and muck from head to toe pulling a calf for the same amount of time.”

A lack of farm vets isn’t anything new in rural parts of Indiana or the U.S., but the COVID pandemic has pushed the shortage to dangerous levels, according to State Veterinarian Marsh.

During the outbreak, people bought or adopted house pets in droves, driving up demand for those services and forcing many vets to turn their focus away from the farm. It also made small-animal services even more lucrative and appealing for recent graduates starting out in the field.

The problem is exacerbated by the years-long decline of the number of vets who stay in Indiana after graduating from Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine — the only vet program in the state and one of only 32 in the nation.

Those obstacles haven’t stopped officials in Indiana’s shortage areas from trying to hire more farm vets.

In Posey and Vanderburg counties, clinics have tried to attract candidates by offering internships, increased salaries, sign-on bonuses and reimbursement for relocation expenses. Perry County commissioners even hired a “head hunter” to track down professionals, according to the animal board grant application.

None of it has worked.

SOLVING THE RIGHT PROBLEM

Last year, Indiana lawmakers created a new state office called the Center for Animal Policy. The division will open July 1 to serve as an umbrella agency for the animal health board and the veterinary licensing board, the only two boards in the state that oversee veterinarians.

The goal? To help solve the vet shortage.

State veterinarian Bret Marsh

State Veterinarian Bret Marsh runs the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.

“We’re hopeful we can find some solutions and bring in some of the key individuals across our state to help us through this … so at least we’re working on the right problems,” Marsh said.

The new center will likely explore setting up a regional licensing board so vets can practice in multiple states, similar to how nurses have a compact to practice all over the country, he explained. Telemedicine could also provide opportunities for animal treatment in regions lacking vets.

The center, which is requesting about $168,000 this year to hire a director and begin operations, will also likely explore creating a vet student loan forgiveness plan through the state similar to one already offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The program, which wipes out some student debt if a veterinarian agrees to practice in a shortage area for a certain period, has attracted candidates to some regions of Indiana, Marsh noted.

Beyond the new center, Hanover College and Ivy Tech Community College in Madison are partnering to launch the state’s second veterinarian program, which could go a long way toward beefing up Indiana’s supply of farm-animal specialists.

The Hanover Veterinary Teaching Center received $5.9 million in READI grant funding last year and will house doctor of veterinary medicine and veterinary nursing programs expected to serve 110 students annually.

Hinder, the DownHome Veterinary Clinic owner, said he hopes the proposed solutions work soon. After a year of trying without success to hire another farm animal vet, the stress of the job is mounting.

Some days, he doesn’t get home until after midnight because of the high volume of farm visits. That much work, with sometimes little pay to show for it, wears a veterinary clinic thin.

“Honestly, if I wanted to work 24/7, all year round, I could,” he said. “Working long hours and traveling more, it’s been a major impact on my staff. They have families, and they sacrifice daily to be able to stay and help take care of these animals.”

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