Programs offer incentives to students who want to study ag operations
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Chris Schneider points to a photo of the first graduating class of the Bovine Veterinary Experience Program.
Each face he points to tells a different story: This student grew up on a ranch. This one was a dairy manager before participating. This one had never been on a farm in her life before joining the program. This one had no dairy experience whatsoever.
Regardless of their background, the students represent the agriculture industry's greatest hope and biggest need: Finding college students to take over in a desperately needed position that's quickly vanishing -- the large-animal veterinarian.
Several years ago, it became apparent to members of the profession that the problem -- an undersupply of food animal practitioners and food supply veterinarians -- was only going to get worse, said Schneider. He is the daily production medicine veterinarian for the University of Idaho and a co-investigator in the Idaho Dairy Association grant that funds a large part of the bovine veterinary program.
A 2006 study concluded that demand for food supply veterinarians would increase by 12 to 13 percent each year, while supply would fall short by 4 to 5 percent per year, Schneider said.
Jack Field, vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said students coming out of vet school face debt as high as $100,000.
"You still have to try to find a place to live and put food on the table for you or your family," he said. "It's just getting more expensive, more difficult for students to get through their schooling."
Washington State Veterinarian Leonard Eldridge said many people in food animal medicine realize they can make more money treating dogs, cats and horses.
Seventy percent of his 40 years of experience was spent in large animal medicine, including work in cow-calf operations and feedlot consulting. Eldridge said it takes a specific sort of individual to take on the duties of a food animal veterinarian, one who looks beyond financial reward.
"It is a 24/7 job," he said. "You answer the phone whenever and you go. There are some folks who don't want to do it."
When Schneider first arrived in the program, he was seeing students as juniors and seniors who didn't know the cycle of a dairy or beef operation.
"They lacked the basic management skills coming into veterinary school that your average farmer knew," Schneider said. "There was a disconnect between the product we were producing and the needs of the industry."
According to a Gallup poll, veterinarians are ranked third in professional perceptions, behind school teachers and medical doctors.
"It tells us veterinarians are looked upon highly in their community," Schneider said. Today's veterinary classes are highly urban, predominately Caucasian and 80 to 90 percent female.
"The urban deal is a big issue because they didn't come from a dairy farm or a cow-calf ranch in most cases," he said. "What happens when you get a veterinarian in your home that's very well trained, highly respected, but knows nothing about your industry and sees 15 to 20 people a day."
The program is trying to make a difference and produce professionals who understand the evolving industries of the region, who won't talk negatively or ignorantly about confined animal feed operations, water quality issues or corporate farms owned by families.
"We try to get our future veterinarians (and) current veterinary students living with, working with those families so they realize the things they say negatively or positively ultimately impacts the family," Schneider said.
Even if the student decides against pursuing that aspect of the career, they will at least be able to speak as a professional about the industry, without being susceptible to what Schneider called "animal radicalism." Veterinarians need to be informed about everything, and not just what they read in the popular press or different media sources, he said.
"We feel animal agriculture in the West is under assault," he said. "We need to provide an educated product of future professionals who don't have our biases but have made their own choices on the issue. The only way to do that is get them out with practitioners and animal owners that are practicing in relevance."
Schneider said the developers turned to a similar program at University of California-Davis, where veterinary students worked on a farm early in their training.
The Northwest Bovine Veterinary Experience Program is designed to meet the challenge by putting students on a dairy farm or beef ranch during their first summer, after taking classes about production medicine and Spanish in preparation.
They then spend six weeks on dairies, feedlots or cow-calf operations in Idaho, Central Washington and Oregon, rotating through different aspects of the farm every week.
"They are a worker in training," Schneider said. "They're there to work with the labor to see the everyday diseases, everyday problems."
It's easy for a veterinarian to tell a worker to change his behavior, Schneider said. But without understanding the situation, such as a person working 16 hours a day, they are an ineffective professional.
"We're not sending them out with a person who has 10 sheep in a backyard," he said. "Our average herd size on the dairy side of things is probably 2,500 to 3,000 milking cows and the average feedlot they're going on to has probably got 30,000 to 40,000 animals on feed at any one given time."
Schneider said the program will eventually be unified with the Washington State University animal hospital in Pullman, Wash.
The first class graduates at the conclusion of this school year. The overall goal is to send 15 students per year through the program, while enticing students to practice in their home states.
Funding is provided by several sources, including the United Dairymen of Idaho through the Idaho Dairy Association, Pfizer Animal Health, the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Idaho Animal Veterinary Science department.
Ninety percent of the dollars taken in are returned to the students in the form of salary, Schneider said. Participation also opens the door for further scholarships.
"Every little bit we can throw to the student debt issue is a big thing," he said.
Field's organization worked several years ago to pass a food animal veterinarian scholarship through the Washington state Legislature, but ran into difficulty funding it.
"Now we just have a scholarship in name," he said, noting other states have funded similar scholarships.
The association hopes to offer up to $20,000 for every year of service the students provide as a veterinarian in a large-animal practice in state, helping to eliminate part of the debt and establish a little bit of income.
"If we can get people established, if they put in three or four years, they would have a good client base established," Field said. "We can't expect veterinarians to come out, work for nothing and stay here."
Idaho Bovine Veterinary Experience Program: www.cainecenter.uidaho.edu/ibvep.htm