By Bailey Archey
2022 DVM Candidate at Mississippi State University
Veterinary students are no strangers to the discussion about the shortage of food animal veterinarians in the United States. In our coursework, we’re encouraged to become interested in cattle because of their incredible resiliency, and most of us are familiar with the USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP), which financially incentivizes practice in designated shortage areas, many of which have heavy food animal populations.
I am personally interested in food animal practice because I believe it represents an opportunity for innovation and to protect public health and food security. However, most veterinary students still choose to enter small animal-exclusive practice. Through an informal survey, I gathered some information from my classmates as to why this might be.
As one might expect, finances were the number one reason that my classmates who are not interested in food animal practice feel that way. Many of us will have massive amounts of debt upon graduation. This will compel many of us to search for jobs that will allow us to pay our debt most efficiently, and these positions will likely be small animal-exclusive.
My classmates who are not planning on being food animal clinicians also said that they would consider food animal practice if the salaries were higher. Financial incentives such as the VMLRP are necessary to maintain student aspirations towards food animal practice, but we still have shortages despite this program.
Additionally, some students seemed concerned about the nuances of the VMLRP. Increased efficiency of and trust in the VMLRP, and perhaps expanded access to similar programs, are necessary to recruit even more students into food animal practice.
If the financial futures of aspiring food animal clinicians appear so bleak, what is compelling them towards that aspect of practice? Nearly all of my classmates interested in food animal practice had experience with livestock prior to veterinary school, and almost half of those not interested in food animal practice had no prior livestock experience.
This is an aspect of recruitment that is easy to overlook. If a student had no exposure to livestock, rodeos, or any aspect of the rural lifestyle growing up, it is reasonable to assume that food animal practice has never been part of her vision for herself as a veterinarian.
Veterinary curriculums could play a major role in helping students without prior livestock experience integrate food animal practice into their visions for themselves. Regarding the prospect of considering food animal practice, my classmate and aspiring small animal clinician Amelia Andersson said, “I feel like I’m already so behind since there’s a lot of jargon that I don’t know.”
If schools want more students to enter food animal practice, veterinary students should feel comfortable asking their professors basic questions about food animal breeds, husbandry, and lingo. While professors should respond to these inquiries respectfully, students also need to relinquish their fears of “sounding dumb” and ask questions boldly.
Veterinary schools could also play a role in helping students see that food animal medicine has an impact far beyond one herd. My classmate Emerald Ford said she is interested in mixed animal practice because “at the root of improving health, economics, and quality of life around the world, agriculture, and specifically animal agriculture, is pivotal.”
Food animal medicine is where animal health becomes much more than animal health. It becomes public health, producers’ livelihoods, global food security, a cornerstone of international trade, and the foundation of national security. While I know that food animal practice is extremely demanding, I also view it as an irresistible call to be a part of something greater than myself.
My personal journey to desiring a career in food animal practice was heavily influenced by the op-ed “Want to keep America safe? Train more veterinarians” by Dr. Christa A. Gallagher. I developed an interest in food animal medicine during exposure to livestock as part of my undergraduate studies, but this article connected the dots for me and gave me a greater “why.”
When I wonder what could possibly make vet school worth it, I think back to this article. Food animal practice and public health are what will make vet school feel most worth it for me–knowing I can one day have a larger-scale impact on people and society. I can help producers maintain their economic livelihoods and contribute to the production of nutritious and wholesome food, all while protecting the national security interests of the country I love.
We also must consider that aspiring food animal clinicians will have to remain firm in their career goals in spite of growing hostility towards the animal agriculture industry. I believe the United States animal agriculture industry does an incredible job of efficiently producing a safe and wholesome protein supply.
At the same time, I understand society’s concerns regarding environmental sustainability, antibiotic use, and animal welfare. While I do not claim to have all the answers, I know that entering the realm of food animal medicine and establishing relationships with producers is the only way I can expect to have any involvement in the aspects of production that society scrutinizes. I hope that the clinical experience I will gain will enable me to be a voice for One Health —interdisciplinary collaboration for the optimal health of humans, animals, and the environment—in animal agriculture.
Despite the rise of plant-based proteins, most American diets and a significant portion of American trade revolve around meat. In order to meet the animal protein demands of a growing world, we need minds that have qualms about the status-quo but move towards food animal medicine anyway.
Producing enough food for 9.8 billion people by 2050 in a sustainable and public health-friendly way is a tall order, and veterinarians need to be involved in the discussion on long-term US and global food security. Veterinary students have an amazing opportunity to rise to this challenge. With the right financial incentives and a learning environment that encourages those without prior livestock experience, I am confident that others will join me in the ranks of aspiring food animal veterinarians.
Learn more about the challenges impacting food animal veterinarians in the upcoming CAST paper, Impact of Recruitment and Retention of Food Animal Veterinarians on the U.S. Food Supply.
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