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Livestock are a major part of Virginia agriculture. But there are fewer and fewer vets for farm animals.

Dairy cows graze in Stanley, Va.
Dairy cows graze in Stanley, Va.(Virginia Mercury, Parker Michels-Boyce)
Published: Jul. 13, 2021 at 10:08 AM EDT
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For many years, Buckingham County, home to tens of thousands of cows, goats, sheep and hogs, had no veterinarians devoted to treating livestock.

“There just was nobody in the county,” said Ivan Davis, a cattle operator and president of the Buckingham Farm Bureau. And, “when you need a vet, you need a vet.”

Today, Buckingham is on better footing, with several practices in operation. But other areas around Virginia haven’t been so lucky. This year, four regions of the commonwealth covering 22 different counties have applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for funds intended to entice large-animal veterinarians to rural regions, citing shortages of the vital professionals.

Despite recording nearly 200,000 in annual hog sales in 2017, the counties of Surry, Suffolk, Southampton, Suffolk and Isle of Wight are served by only one swine veterinarian, reads one request. “Previous efforts to attract and retain swine veterinarians in this area have been limited to the efforts of existing swine companies. Those companies have described long working hours, required travel in the practice area, and the difficulty of luring food animal practitioners to rural southeastern Virginia while peers work the more lucrative urban areas of the commonwealth.”

“For at least three decades this has been a concern,” said Norm Hyde, a video production supervisor for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation who has produced an episode of the organization’s “Real Virginia” program on vet shortages. “A livestock farmer needs a good veterinarian partner.”

Livestock remain a major part of Virginia agriculture: in 2017, the commonwealth reported almost 1.5 million cattle, roughly 250,000 hogs and pigs, 49,000 goats and 83,000 sheep and lambs, worth hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. All of them will likely need some kind of veterinary care during their lifetime, if only an exam.

In 2010, in response to legislation by the General Assembly, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine issued a report on large-animal veterinary shortages that predicted “a moderate to severe shortage in food animal veterinarians in private and public sectors over the next 20 years.”

“Rural veterinary practices that serve distributed farming operations have difficulty becoming and remaining profitable,” the report found. “The current shortage, especially in rural areas, will worsen unless such practices can be made economically viable.”

Farmers and veterinarians readily acknowledge some of the inherent challenges of attracting talent to the large-animal field.

Rural practices by their very nature cover far-flung areas, meaning vets must spend significant portions of their day on the road rather than conducting visits that bring in income. Large-animal work also tends to occur at more unpredictable times than small-animal work, which can be handled through emergency centers at night or on weekends.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy

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