Shortage of livestock vets is leaving Indiana producers in the lurch | news

If a cow needs medical care at the Hagedorn dairy, the family business does not call a veterinarian. That’s because there aren’t any nearby.

They used to have a vet that they called in emergencies, but that provider stopped seeing livestock over five years ago.

“We were pretty much on our own after that,” said Jeremy Hagedorn, who helps run the 120-cow farm between Evansville and Louisville in Perry County.

Since then, the family has learned to treat their animals as best they can, but that doesn’t always work out. Sometimes cows die that a vet could have saved. When that happens, they slaughter and sell the meat to limit their losses.

Medical treatment at home generally works, Hagedorn said, but there are times when having a farm vet nearby can mean the difference between life and death for one of their cows.

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

Perry County is one of 36 Indiana counties designated by the board as having a shortage of agricultural veterinarians. Growers in these areas have extremely limited access to professional care and some districts have no access at all.

In a seven-county region of southwest Indiana with more than 3,350 registered animal farms, there are only nine qualified livestock veterinarians available — and their practices are heavily geared towards treating pets.

Two of those doctors are about to retire and most other clinics there are no longer accepting new clients, leading a local vet to describe the situation as “apocalyptic,” according to an Animal Health Agency application form.

As many farm veterinarians retire and others transition to treating pets, Indiana’s shortage is expected to worsen.

It’s a dangerous trend. Fewer animal populations receiving medical care mean food safety, animal welfare and public health are at risk as diseases like bovine tuberculosis, bird flu and African swine flu make a comeback, according to State Veterinarian Bret Marsh, head of the Animal Health Agency.

“If we don’t have veterinarians monitoring these populations of pigs and birds, we could miss these diseases and that poses a major challenge to our state and country,” he explained.

HEAD HUNT FOR VETS

Grant Hinder, owner of DownHome Veterinary Clinic in New Salisbury, has been trying for over a year to hire another livestock vet to fill the huge need for services in Harrison, Crawford and Floyd counties.

Nobody applied. In a way, he can’t blame them.







Lack of farm veterinarians

Grant Hinder owns and operates the DownHome Veterinarian Clinic in New Salisbury. He has been trying unsuccessfully to hire another farm vet for over a year.




“I hate to say it, but in veterinary medicine we all know that your small animals are your bread and butter,” Hinder said. “Your big animals, you do it because you love it. …You won’t make a bank or get rich if you do.”

For many agricultural veterinarians, service delivery is a fundamental issue, he noted. When vets charge what they should in order to make a profit, most farmers can’t afford it. The situation is not attractive to veterinary school graduates, who are often saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt.

“You could be sitting 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 dirt from head to toe and pull a calf the same time.”

A shortage of agricultural veterinarians is nothing new in rural parts of Indiana or the United States, but the COVID pandemic has pushed the shortage to dangerous levels, according to State Veterinarian Marsh.

During the outbreak, people flocked to buy or adopt pets, spurring demand for these services and forcing many veterinarians to turn away from the farm. It also made small animal services even more lucrative and attractive to young graduates entering the field.

The problem is compounded by the years-long decline in the number of veterinarians who remain in Indiana after graduating from Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine — the only veterinary program in the state and one of only 32 in the country.

These obstacles haven’t stopped officials in Indiana’s shortage areas from hiring more farm vets.

In Posey and Vanderburg counties, clinics have tried to attract candidates by offering internships, raises, sign-up bonuses and reimbursements for relocation expenses. Perry County commissioners even hired a “headhunter” to track down professionals, according to the Animal Authority grant application.

None of this worked.

SOLVE THE RIGHT PROBLEM

Last year, Indiana legislators created a new state agency called the Center for Animal Policy. The department will open July 1 to serve as the umbrella agency for the Animal Health Department and the Veterinary Licensing Board, the only two bodies in the state that oversee veterinarians.

The goal? To solve the vet shortage.







State Vet Bret Marsh

State veterinarian Bret Marsh chairs the Indiana State Board of Animal Health




“We’re hoping that we can find some solutions and get some of the most important people in our state to help us with that… so at least we’re working on the right issues,” Marsh said.

The new center will likely explore establishing a regional licensing board so veterinarians can practice in multiple states, much like nurses are contracted to practice across the country, he explained. Telemedicine could also provide opportunities for animal care in regions where there is a shortage of veterinarians.

The center, which is asking about $168,000 this year to hire a director and start operations, will also likely explore the state’s creation of a vet student loan forgiveness plan, similar to what is already being offered by the US Department of Agriculture.

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

In addition to the new center, Hanover College and Ivy Tech Community College in Madison are partnering to launch the state’s second veterinary program, which could go a long way in expanding Indiana’s supply of livestock specialists.

The Hanover Veterinary Teaching Center received $5.9 million in READI grants last year and will host programs for veterinary medicine and animal care doctorates, which are expected to mentor 110 students annually.

Hinder, the owner of DownHome Veterinary Clinic, said he hopes the proposed solutions work soon. After a year of unsuccessfully trying to hire another livestock vet, the stress of the job mounts.

Some days he doesn’t come home until after midnight because of all the farm visits. So much work, sometimes with little pay for it, makes a veterinary clinic thin.

“Honestly, if I wanted to work 24/7, year-round, I could do it,” he said. “Long working hours and more travel have severely impacted my employees. They have families and they sacrifice themselves daily to be able to stay and help take care of these animals.”

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