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‘Crying need’ for more veterinarians trained in livestock

Dr. Staci Slager at left and Dr. Becky Polage veterinarians from Orion Veterinary Services work together as they give vaccination shots and perform castration services to cattle belonging to a rural Orion farmer.

A growing number of veterinarians across the country are focusing on small animals or pets, creating a shortage of vets treating farm animals or working as government inspectors.

Because so many veterinary school graduates are opting to live in metropolitan areas and treat pets, some national reports say the national food system and inspection process is threatened.

"All over America and Europe too, everyone is crying for more veterinarians trained in livestock," said Jack Hermann of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

He said there has been a "crying need" over the past 20 years for more farm veterinarians.

In 2003, Dr. Hermann worked as a congressional science fellow to introduce bills to encourage more veterinary students to focus on large animals.

He said the National Veterinary Medical Service Act was passed in 2006 to offer scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for veterinarians entering under served areas, but it never was funded.

Dr. Hermann said a large part of the problem is that many veterinary students are "suburban white chicks" who didn't grow up on farms and have no interest in that part of the veterinary profession.

Rock Island County Farm Bureau manager DeAnne Bloomberg agreed, but said this area is fortunate to have more "mixed-use" veterinarians who treat small and large animals.

While it may not work everywhere, Ms. Bloomberg said this area is perfect for "mixed-use" because there is a strong urban population and a long history of quality livestock production.

Veterinarian Becky Polage of the Orion Veterinary Service said her practice treats large and small animals.

"Probably easily 90 percent of us that go into mixed animal or large animal practices grew up on a farm," she said. "We grew up with that experience and it kind of led us to stay with the large animal side."

Of the 104 students in her graduating class at the University of Illinois three years ago, only one who chose to enter the large-animal practice didn't have a farm background.

"She just really enjoyed it, just loved it," Dr. Polage said. "But I would say most of us come from a background where we had experience before."

She estimates that 80 percent or more of her classmates entered small-animal practices.

Dr. Polage said she believes the area currently has enough veterinarians to tend large animals, but a large number are nearing retirement age, which could create a need in the future.

Dr. Polage said incentive programs are needed to help veterinarians who graduate with an average student-loan debt of $100,000, but encouraging students at a young age also is essential.

"Children in school don't get the exposure to farms that they used to," she said. "There are fewer farms out there, farms are bigger and they don't get the exposure to necessarily start their interest possibly down that career path."

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