FINCASTLE, Va. (WFXR) – A shortage of farm and large animal veterinarians could put the U.S. food supply at risk. That is according to a report by the Farm Journal Foundation and supported by the Virginia Farm Bureau, as well as local veterinarians.

“Veterinarians are the boots on the ground; in the mud, on the farm, to make sure the product that gets to the consumer is safe, has good welfare, appropriate welfare standards for USDA and FDA regulations,” said Dr. Hannah Varnell of Wellfarm Vets as she looked over a herd she treats near Fincastle. “We’re actually preventing any major disease outbreaks that could cripple the economy.”

There are a variety of contributing factors to the shortage, but according to the report, economics appear to be a driving force. Small animal veterinarians can make double or triple what their counterparts in farm animal medicine make.

Because of that economic reality, many new veterinarians who carry student debt load, are choosing not to go into farm medicine, because small animal medicine can provide the salary they need to afford the loan payments and still make a living.

So, why is there such a disparity in pay?

Small animal vets usually treat pets. People have emotional attachments to their pets, seek out routine care for them, and will pay top dollar to keep their pets healthy.

While large animal vets treat individuals, they are essentially treating the herd. There can be emotional attachments between farmers and their animals, but those animals are commodities. It may make more sense from an economic standpoint in some cases for a farmer to treat an animal on their own, to sell the animal at market, or to put down the animal depending on the condition.

Despite that, farmers are also feeling the shortage squeeze.

“From a farmers point of view it’s really hard to find any large animal vets, particularly ones who can come out when you need them,” said Tom Williamson of Williamson Farms.

There are programs to help offset student loan costs for large animal veterinarians, but the lifestyle of farm animal vets can also be an issue. They are on call day and night. And then there is the issue of safety.

“It’s hard, physically,” said Dr. Varnell. “I’ve only been practicing for a couple of years, but I have mentors and people who I know who have had multiple shoulder replacement surgeries, so it’s physically laborious. It’s dangerous, any farmer or producer knows the dangers of working with large animals.”

Dr. Hannah Varnell looks at a herd she treats near Fincastle (Photo: George Noleff)

The outlook is improving, but the farm veterinarian numbers are still off.

“It has gotten a little better,” said Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent for Bedford County Scott Baker. “We do have a few more veterinarians who will do large animal work than we had five or six years ago, but with the number of farming operations we have in this region, we likely are still in somewhat of a shortage.”

Though there are challenges, Dr. Varnell says she is passionate about her choice to go into large animal medicine: “I love what I do, and to me, it’s offset, that though I’m not making the big bucks that the small animal veterinarians are making, I love what I do.”