Editorial: Large-animal vets needed

At The Charlie Carrier Farm in Williamstown, Vt. large animal veterinarian Taylor Hull and veterinarian technician Sophie Roe check on a sick calf on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

At The Charlie Carrier Farm in Williamstown, Vt. large animal veterinarian Taylor Hull and veterinarian technician Sophie Roe check on a sick calf on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Published: 08-14-2023 9:40 AM

The rebirth of small-scale agriculture in Vermont and New Hampshire is one of the most inspiring stories of our time. But undeniable challenges to its sustainability persist, including the unprecedented volatility of weather in a warming climate; the high price of land; the need to charge higher prices for locally produced food; and a lack of robust infrastructure to support agriculture, such as meat processing facilities.

Our colleague Alex Hanson pointed to another one in his profile last Sunday of Taylor Hull: an acute shortage of large-animal veterinarians — those whose practice revolves around the care of livestock. As such, they are key to animal health and food safety, as well as to the livelihood and peace of mind of owners of cows, sheep, pigs, goats and horses.

Hull is bucking a worrisome trend. At 30 years of age, she has been practicing in the Randolph area for only a couple of years, at a time when a whole generation of large-animal vets is retiring and newcomers to the field are too few and far between to meet the demand for their services.

This situation is hardly confined to Vermont and New Hampshire. It is a nationwide phenomenon. More new graduates of veterinary schools are choosing to work with “companion animals” — that is, pets — rather than farm animals. Fewer than 3% of recent graduates choose to work exclusively with food animals (while others concentrate on specialties such as caring for horses), compared with 40% as recently as 40 years ago.

The reasons are not hard to discern: the pay is better, the hours are regular, and it is far less dangerous and physically demanding. Large-animal vets are twice as likely to get hurt on the job as their counterparts, they need to be available at all hours and in all weather conditions, and often have to drive long distances on problematic roads in order to reach their patients on remote farms. (And there are no specialty emergency-service practices to cover nights and weekends like those that some small-animal clinics depend on.) No wonder, then, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that 500 counties across 46 states are suffering from critical shortages of large-animal vets.

The need and desire for higher pay results in part from the fact that after four years of intensive study, the average graduate of vet school leaves with nearly $190,000 in debt. The USDA does offer a program that provides up to $75,000 in loan repayment for veterinarians who agree to work for at least three years in underserved rural areas. But clearly, it’s not enough. Legislation pending in Congress would expand it. A targeted state-level effort to recruit large-animal veterinarians could perhaps supplement that federal program.

Another factor is that private equity firms are buying up independent veterinary practices all over the country and doing what they do best: wringing profits from their new enterprises without regard for the public good. In this case, that means concentrating on more lucrative pet practices at the expense of the large-animal side of the business.

So why does anybody choose to discount all those difficulties and go into large-animal practice? Hull’s story, as related by Hanson, contains many clues. She grew up on a family farm herself, has been around big animals her whole life and clearly cherishes the opportunity to work with them. In fact, she said that she knew from the age of 4 or 5 that she wanted to be a vet. Hull finds additional compensation in the fact that she gets to know animal owners on their own turf — in their barns and homes — in a way that would be nearly impossible for a pet vet. We suspect also that there is a sense of freedom and independence in traveling from farm to farm that is rewarding in its own right.

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In short, one might say that for Hull, large-animal practice seems to be something bred in the bone, more like a calling than merely a job. And as with any calling, relatively few will hear and respond to it. So as Barb LeClair, retired founder of Riverbend Veterinary Clinic in Plainfield who was herself a large-animal vet, truly told Hanson: “You need to be good to your veterinarians . . . . Because they are hard to come by.”