Loan Repayment Helps Rural Veterinarians Put Down Roots

Dec 7, 2016  | 6 min  | Ep4217

The population in Rural America has been on the decline since the Civil War leaving more work for fewer hands.

When important agricultural jobs are made vacant by flight to urban areas, death or retirement, the search to find a suitable replacement begins. Getting someone to stay in town or travel against the flow may seem like an impossible task but there are ways to inspire some folks to seek the wide open spaces.

Peter Tubbs explains.

A horse with a foot problem is the first patient on Monday morning at the Droge (Dro-Gee) Animal Health Center in Eureka, KS.

Greenwood County is defined by the Flint Hills, which limits agriculture to ranching rather than row crops. Horses are the preferred tool for herding cattle here, making equine medicine an important part of a vet practice. This is the only large animal vet clinic in the county and both veterinarians on duty tend to the patient.

Dr. Kailey Fitzsmorris is solving a problem in American agriculture- a scarcity of veterinarians willing to work with the millions of food animals in rural areas. The USDA’s Veterinary Loan Repayment Program is an encouragement to fill the gap.  Fitzsmorris sees a reduction in the principal of her vet school loan for each year she works in an underserved region of the United States.

Fitzsmorris joined Dr. Duane Droge to care for some of the 300,000 food animals in a nine-county region of southeast Kansas. Droge is nearing retirement, and Dr. Fitzsmorris is in the process of buying the practice. The loan repayment program is allowing that to happen ahead of schedule.

Dr. Kailey Fitzsmorris, DVM: “Without the program it wouldn’t be feasible to buy a practice only two years out, and I will have the practice bought by next year. It just totally changed the financial aspect of moving to a rural community. Before, it probably wouldn’t have been feasible for ten or fifteen years. Five years out we will be right on track. It’s been awesome.”

The Vet Loan Repayment Program defines the regions with the highest need for veterinary services, and strives to place veterinarians into these regions. Vets willing to take care of food animals are the highest priority, followed by those willing to work in rural areas at least 30 percent of their time.

An average annual investment of $5 million USDA dollars has had mixed results, but progress in the most critically underserved areas have been a bright spot in the program. Since the first year of loan repayments in 2010, the number of areas where large animal veterinarians are desperately needed has been cut in half, from 40 to 20.

Dr. Kailey Fitzsmorris, DVM: “A lot of people probably don’t see the draw of southeast Kansas, but I grew up here, my family is here, there are thousands and thousands of head of cattle here, ranchers are here. It’s been the perfect place for me. I’m glad there was a shortage of veterinarians here, it worked out really well.”

Maintaining the veterinarian supply may be as important to the countries food chain as the animals themselves. The USDA estimates that American meat consumption will continue to grow over the next 20 years, which will require an increase in food animals to satisfy America’s taste for protein, and an increase in veterinarians to maintain the health of the herd.

A seven hour drive to the west, Dr. Barbara Petersen is checking on a herd of Jersey dairy cattle near Dalhart, TX.

Petersen, who grew up on an Iowa dairy farm, found an opportunity to start her own practice with a focus on food animals, specializing in dairy. While this corner of northwest Texas has over a million beef cattle, it is also home to almost 50,000 dairy animals whose milk supplies a local cheese plant. The medical care runs the spectrum, from lab work to embryo transfer using artificial insemination.

Dr. Barbara Petersen, DVM: “There are so many animals here, so many chances to, just to see different things, see cases that you wouldn’t normally see if you are in a smaller practice area. It is rural, but it’s really nice.”

The dairies Petersen serves each have over 10,000 head, and milking is an 18-hour process each day. Because of the large numbers, one of Petersen’s goals is on training dairy employees, to triage and treat cows, holding the line until a veterinarian can arrive.

Dr. Barbara Petersen, DVM: “They are actually my go to people. The employees, day to day, they know what is going on. It’s nice to get to work with that level of person, of skill.”

The Veterinary Loan Repayment Program changed Petersen’s finances enough to allow her to hire another veterinarian as her first employee, Dr. Alea Hoffman.

Dr. Barbara Petersen, DVM: “She has done a really great job of growing into this role of one, helping with existing clients and two, growing relationships and new opportunities.”

Petersen takes advantage of the requirement for veterinary school externships in the operation of her practice.

Brian Stampfl of the University of Minnesota is one of a long line of students to pass through Dalhart.

Externships are valuable to vet students, both to learn the type of work a student prefers and the region of the country where they are most comfortable.

Dr. Barbara Petersen, DVM: “Having veterinary students is a lot of fun because they are about to graduate and they are ready to get into the field. We really enjoy teaching them and we learn from them too. They are always showing us new things.”

Time spent working in a community can help overcome preconceptions of an area, even if they appear to be a tough sell to an outsider. In the end, however, the work is the biggest draw to a job, regardless of location, incentives, or pay.

Dr. Barbara Petersen, DVM: “Animal husbandry is definitely the most important part of our job, and I think more so than even sometimes than our veterinary degree, because whether you have ten animals or ten thousand, each one of those girls needs to be looked after and cared for.”

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