Colorado program aims to beef up number of large animal veterinarians in rural areas
In the rural Colorado towns where cattle are still king, there is often a very real shortage of large animal and food animal practitioners but the multifaceted problem is being addressed on the floor of the legislature.
Ashley Stokes, DVM, PhD, who has spent most of her career in a large animal focus, spent part of her career in a mobile practice and she said it was well-received by her clientele and provided her a great deal of flexibility in serving her clients. In a large animal practice, a mobile unit allows veterinarians to be an asset to producers as they manage herd health, learning the operation as well as its goals, challenges, and what is working currently.
“There is opportunity there,” she said. “It’s running a business in a very different way.”
Students in veterinary school are able to experience a mobile-type style of practicing veterinary medicine. Many practices maintain a brick and mortar location and are on location on certain days or have multiple veterinarians to cover in-clinic and mobile calls.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program into law last summer. The program, Stokes said, will help rural communities secure practitioners to serve residents. Don Brown, state Commissioner of Agriculture and a Yuma County, Colorado, farmer, said he hopes the “loan repayment program will provide additional opportunities for students to ease the burden of debt and move forward with assisting our agricultural producers with the veterinary needs.”
The program allows graduates of accredited veterinary medicine schools to apply for up to $70,000 in student loan debt forgiveness. Applicants must live in the state and agree to practice veterinary medicine in a rural area that is experiencing a shortage of veterinarians as designated by the council for participation in the program.
Stokes said the shortage of veterinarians in rural areas is a problem being faced across the country and the new law is supported by a number of producer groups including the Colorado Corn Growers Association. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Northeastern Colorado, and written with guidance from the state Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.
“It’s a multifaceted problem and it takes a dedicated effort from the veterinary college, the community that has the need and from the veterinary profession,” she said. “The bill is one piece of that to help alleviate financial pressure on recent graduates so that if they want to pursue a practice in a rural area, they are able to do that and get more established.”
FILLING THE GAP
Sonnenberg knows first-hand the struggles of rural communities and represents most of northeastern Colorado with his agriculture background and knowledge.
“With the demand for small animal clinics in urban areas where this same veterinarian can work a normal schedule and demand more money to pay the high cost of their education, we find that students coming out of college have less of a desire to fill those rural, large animal practices,” he said.
Sonnenberg said he hopes the bill that has been passed will take the financial demands to repay student loans out of the equation, making it more advantageous for recent graduates to practice in rural areas, serving large animal clients.
The application committee that reviews applicants to Colorado State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine includes a number of large animal practitioners and others who have a large animal or food animal background. Stokes said the committee has an interest in identifying the applicants with an interest in large animal practice and those with a love for rural areas.
“We have a great opportunity to work with our livestock industry — the beef industry, the wool growers, the dairy industry — and our other livestock industries,” she said. “As a veterinary school, we want (students and graduates) to be mentored and we want them to really be connected to these industries.”
These relationships and connections can translate to summer internships to round out the students’ experiences and can also help recent graduates find placement after graduation. Building relationships with existing practitioners and producers in these areas can allow graduates to then pursue practice in those areas and become established.
It is this partnership, Stokes said, between the veterinary college, the veterinary profession, producers and industry groups that can help alleviate the shortage. As many existing practitioners look toward retirement from practice, this connection can help communities and veterinarians transition.
“We have students who want to do it,” she said. “We just have to help them get there.”
One of the voices from rural Colorado that was particularly well-received was that of Lora Bledsoe, DVM. Bledsoe, a graduate of Colorado State University, is originally from Illinois. After several years in a large, seven-veterinarian, mixed practice and then in Limon, Colo., in a mixed practice, Bledsoe sought her own mobile practice.
Bledsoe said she enjoyed the mixed practice but the scheduled appointments with small animal clients often made it difficult to be available for on-ranch calls when producers call. Being mobile also allows Bledsoe the ability to work on the family ranch between clients in addition to creating a part-time position in the small community for a staff member to offer office help and to even make the occasional call with Bledsoe.
“A lot of the vets out here are mixed animal practices and they’re in a brick and mortar building though they do go out on farm calls,” Bledsoe said. “There are high operating costs to have staff, a building and keeping the lights on.”
Bledsoe said the costs often force practitioners to focus on small animals, which tends to be more lucrative.
“When you focus on the small animals, you’re not always available when a producer calls you and has an emergency or needs to get in for a last-minute health certificate,” she said. “I found it frustrating that I was pushing back the ranchers.”
Those ranchers are vital, she said, to small communities like those in eastern Colorado, near her home ranch. In addition to being better able to serve rural clients, Bledsoe is able to help on her own family ranch, and has created a part-time job for another young woman who works in agriculture on a nearby ranch. ❖
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