Vet Shortage Plagues Montana Ranches

By Beacon Staff

HARDIN – It is finger-numbing cold outside in a cow shed east of nowhere. Farm veterinarian Betsy Bialon is donning a pair of cheap shoulder-length disposable gloves, which she clips with surgical clamps to a poncho made from a brown leaf bag.

“Are you going to be warm enough? It’s you guys I’m worried about,” Bialon said. Her right arm was already lubed with yellow Ajax dish soap. Her first patient, a black Angus steer with an infection, was waiting in the chute. “I’ll be inside a 98-degree bull. So, I’ll be fine.”

And then, just like that she was up to her shoulder in bovine. The animal bellowed and shot a retaliatory kick toward the veterinarian’s knees. The cowhands at Warren’s Feedlot watched, waiting for the prognosis.

The Angus seemed fine, but there was an infection to be lanced. The animal’s testicles had to go. The shed filled with a foul odor as Bialon lanced the infection. She cut each testicle loose, tossing them to the ground.

One animal down, 20 to go.

“We’re busier than hell, but I’d love to be even busier,” said Bialon, who works at Sugar Factory Veterinary Clinic.

Food producers would love it if there were more vets like Bialon, a recent college graduate interested in treating animals in the nation’s food supply. An ever-increasing number of new veterinarians are treating pets instead of farm animals. The food industry has been greatly affected.

There was a time when all veterinarians treated livestock; the profession got its start on the farm. But today, only 8.5 percent of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s membership deals exclusively with animals raised for food. The overwhelming majority, 77 percent, treat companion animals predominantly or exclusively.

The problem is at its worst in farm states stretching from Montana to Texas, where so-called “food supply veterinarians” are hard to come by.

“‘Food supply veterinarian’ is certainly a reflection of the critical nature or the profession,” said David Kirkpatrick of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “We have been involved in a shortage situation for several years.”

AVMA warns that the demand for food supply veterinarians will increase 12 to 16 percent over the next seven years, while the number of animal doctors willing to do the job decreases 4 to 5 percent annually.

A major concern is the age of the veterinarians treating the nation’s food supply, Kirkpatrick said. Three years ago, 46 percent of those professionals were 51 or older. Government veterinarians were also getting long in the tooth.

In February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that vet shortages in key public-health areas like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service had been ignored and that a graying federal work force was about to make matters worse. FSIS is the agency charged with preventing diseased animals from being slaughtered and packaged for sale.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the government’s lead agency for everything from avian bird flu to mad cow disease, expected 30 percent of its veterinarians to become eligible for retirement by 2011.

But being shorthanded for daily tasks was half the problem. The GAO concluded that federal food safety agencies didn’t know if they had enough veterinarians to handle a major disease outbreak like bird flu with potentially fatal consequences for people. It was recommended in 2004 that agencies assess their preparedness for an animal disease disaster. None had done so by the 2009 report.

“Some federal officials said that the United States has never been tested with two major outbreaks occurring at once,” the GAO said. “They said that, should this happen, the effects on animal and public health could be devastating.”

In Montana, food supply veterinarians in seven western-border counties are racing to blood-test 153,000 cattle by year’s end while vaccinating 74,000 head under a plan to restore the state’s brucellosis-free status. Brucellosis can cause abortions in cattle as well as health complications in humans. In rare cases it can be fatal.

The federal government revoked Montana’s brucellosis-free status after eight cattle tested positive for the disease in less than two years. The state now operates under what’s known as Class A status, which labels Montana cattle as a potential risk to livestock in other states.

The plan raised eyebrows when it was unveiled last November. Not everyone was convinced that Montana had the veterinarians available to complete the testing in short order. Myles Watts, co-chairman of agricultural economics and economics at Montana State University in Bozeman, suggested that the state might have to tap phlebotomists to complete the job.

State veterinarian Marty Zaluski said he is confident that the tests will be done on time. The testing is steady work and fairly easy. It might attract retired or semiretired veterinarians looking for relief work. It doesn’t hurt that the seven-county area where the testing is required is in the more populated western part of the state.

Had the brucellosis area been in the eastern or central part of Montana, drumming up enough veterinarians would have been more challenging. Those areas stuck out as profoundly underserved in 2006 when AVMA surveyed the state of food supply veterinary medicine.

In Garfield and Carter counties, the animal-to-food-supply-vet ratio was more than 90,000 to one. Eight Montana counties had ratios of 40,000 to one or worse. Judith Basin County had 59,579 animals being raised for food and not a single food supply vet. Ten other Montana counties didn’t have a food supply veterinarian to treat their cattle, sheep and pigs.

“Certainly in the eastern and central part of Montana, it’s pretty sparse,” said Zaluski.

The work is rough, the distances between clients can be 50 miles or more, a 60-hour work week isn’t uncommon and the pay can be extremely low. An income of less than $40,000 a year isn’t unheard of for a rural vet, while the national median income is more than $91,000.

“There needs to be financial incentives,” Zaluski said. “The federal government has made some efforts in that regard recently. The other problem is that you cannot draw only from a pool of rural kids anymore. We need a program for kids with no large-animal experience or background.

“Finally, a 60-hour work week for 25 years is no longer sustainable. You’re recruiting the best and the brightest, and large-animal medicine is quite demanding.”

Things weren’t much better in Wyoming, where in Weston County the animal-to-veterinarian ratio was 53,697 to one. The state has tested 90,000 animals for brucellosis last year. When a private veterinarian can’t be found to do the job, the state veterinarian has to step in.

“We’re hearing from producers that they’re not able to get a vet to do their testing,” said Wyoming state veterinarian Walter Cook.

The Wyoming Legislature budgeted money for an additional state veterinarian this year. Wyoming is also willing to pay up to 75 percent of a veterinarian’s college debt if the vet will do food supply work in state.

Cook said the state offers about five positions in its tuition program and has more interest than placements.

Gender is a big factor when recruiting food supply veterinarians to rural areas, said country veterinarian Dick Raths.

“Right now, the majority of students graduating from vet college are women,” said Raths. “Some of those people have to have a job for a husband and that’s a problem in a rural community. Vet school is expensive. Salaries aren’t attractive. It’s a tough business.”

Tough doesn’t begin to describe the work environment Sherrie Nash discovered in 1992 when she started practicing veterinary medicine in Harlowton.

“You can get pretty beat up,” Nash said. “When I first got here, they talked about lassoing animals from the back of a moving pickup. I thought, ‘This is safe?'”

Roping cattle from a pickup isn’t a for-credit course in veterinary medical school, which now can easily cost more than $100,000. Nash, president of the Montana Veterinary Medical Association, said work conditions are better now than when she started. They’re better yet when veterinarians only have to deal with the medical part of the job, something that’s going to have to become the norm with an emerging generation of vets dominated by women.

“You definitely train your clients,” Bialon said. “I think I’m better off than my bosses because I can play the girl card. I was (autopsying) a cow the other day and I have these long tree trimmers that I use to get through the ribs. I was getting through two at a time. The rancher offered to do it. So, finally I caved in. He picked up the trimmers and snip, snip, snip went right through.”

The hours are long and the job doesn’t pay top dollar, but there’s beef and pork in Bialon’s freezer. She has a car to drive and a full gas tank. Now and then, she gets some time off.

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