(VIDEO) The need for more trained veterinarians is a major issue facing the food animal industry, as well as small, regional and agricultural communities across Texas.
CEO Harry DeWit oversees the twice-daily milking of 4,600 cows, just part of the 8,000 total cows on one of his four Blue Sky Farms dairies in Friona, Texas.
Maintaining animal health is the top priority to ensure a safe milk and food supply. That includes raising calves that will one day join the milking rotation when older cows cycle out and are retired.
"Animal health is something we work on every day of the year," said DeWit, who has spent 24 years in the dairy cattle business, 14 as owner and operator of Blue Sky Farms. "That can cover anything from milk quality to pneumonia to mastitis. Any health issue that comes with an animal is something we have to work on. You have a protocol in place where you try to prevent the animal from getting sick. We work with vaccination programs and reproduction programs in order to get the best and most productive cows."
When DeWit needs veterinary care, though, he calls some trusted veterinarians in New Mexico. That is not unusual for most cattle ranchers and dairy farm operators in the Texas Panhandle, where the number of veterinarians dedicated to large-animal health are dwindling each year.
Texas Tech University is changing that, addressing in innovative ways the shortage of veterinarians serving rural areas and the aging population of those in the business. Texas Tech's School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo will be the second veterinary school in the state and focused on improving access to affordable education and increasing veterinary care in the rural areas of the state that are currently underserved.
"I think it's great that Texas Tech is coming to the Amarillo area to start a veterinary program," said DeWit, who serves on the veterinary school steering committee. "Large-animal veterinarians have been in scarce supply for years while the number of dairies in this area continues to increase. There are a lot of qualified people working on dairies, but we also need support from the outside in order to keep us on top of our game."
Filling a need
A 2016 report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) opened a door for Texas Tech to establish a School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo on the same campus with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC).
That report revealed that many practicing veterinarians serving rural Texas earned their degrees in the 1970s or 1980s. Currently, 32 percent of the veterinarians in Texas are age 60 or older, a number that climbs to 46 percent when talking about veterinarians just in rural community practice.
Research shows Texas needs approximately 1,300 additional veterinarians to achieve the national average for the state's population. An additional 263 first-year students are needed to maintain the national average, but the state offers just 162 student seats.
Of the 6,600 licensed practicing veterinarians in Texas in 2016, 40 percent earned their degree from outside the state and moved back to Texas to practice. This percentage continues to climb, as Texas has become overwhelming dependent on other states to supply its workforce. Having a veterinary school at Texas Tech to train rural veterinarians will help keep a higher number of students who desire a veterinary degree in the state.
"If any state needs two vet schools, it's Texas, just because the need is so great," said Kenley Skinner, who earned her bachelor's degree in animal science from the Texas Tech Department of Animal and Food Sciences and will earn her doctorate in veterinary medicine in 2019 from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
"There are a lot of people from Texas who are classmates of mine, and one of them just graduated from Texas Tech last year. She was in the animal science program and wants to do food animal medicine when she graduates from Colorado State. So there are a lot of people out there who are interested in doing food animal medicine. It's the way to go because there are so many opportunities once you graduate."
The THECB report provided a path for addressing the shortage of large-animal and rural veterinarians that can be accomplished through "a proposal for a new college of veterinary medical education that is designed to specifically produce large-animal veterinarians in an innovative, cost-efficient manner that does not duplicate existing efforts."
Texas Tech will fill that need by uniquely combining its strengths and expertise with those at TTUHSC to produce top-notch veterinarians and also help reduce student debt. Texas Tech's model is adapted from the fully-accredited veterinary medicine program at the University of Calgary in Canada, where students have more hands-on experience in their first three years, then conduct their fourth year with practicing veterinarians in the field rather than in a teaching hospital.
Located in Amarillo, the heart of the nation's livestock industry, Texas Tech's veterinary school will be on the same campus as a pharmacy school and medical school, providing meaningful opportunities to advance both human and animal health through innovative research.
Providing veterinarians for small, regional and agricultural communities
Leonard Keeton is ecstatic about Texas Tech's new venture.
Keeton has operated his family ranch outside of Wolfforth for 37 years, raising purebred Limousin cattle for show and crossbred cattle and calves that are sold to 4-H and FFA youth to show across the state. Like DeWit, Keeton and his son, Lyle, have to call in veterinarians who live a considerable driving distance away when issues regarding animal health arise that are beyond their experience.
"For years and years, most of the vets in the area have been educated elsewhere, where their primary focus has been more on small animals and horses than on large animals such as dairy cattle, feedlot cattle and cow-calf operations," Keeton said. "Particularly in the Texas Panhandle and Eastern New Mexico and into the Oklahoma Panhandle, the impact of animal health on this area is big."
The Keetons are able to handle minor animal medical issues due to years of experience in the business. Their primary concerns are in cow-calf issues, such as health of newborn and calves, ensuring calves that replenish their stock are born with as few issues as possible and getting through the weaning process.
At the same time, the medical supplies they use must come from veterinarians, as do prescriptions administered to sick cattle. From time to time, the veterinarian has to make on-site visits to examine sick animals.
When that happens, the Keetons call on their veterinarian out of Levelland or Hobbs, New Mexico.
Having more veterinarians trained for rural and agricultural communities would be a huge asset to their business, Keeton said.
"The vet in Levelland is a good vet, but it takes awhile to get the cattle trailered up, in the trailer and over there," Lyle Keeton said. "A lot of times we use a mobile vet who has come out in the past and we still use him, but he's in a clinic in Hobbs and that's quite a distance from Lubbock County."
Lyle Keeton said having veterinarians for rural and agricultural communities would assist in the treatment of existing cattle and aid in research that could help prevent, or at least reduce the frequency and impact of, the health issues facing cattle and dairy ranchers on a daily basis.
"Having somebody available to come out and provide some consulting and help with welfare issues would be great," Lyle Keeton said. "I know that locally we don't have access to a vet school where they do a lot of specialty surgeries. But it would be helpful to have experts around if those specialty surgeries are needed, or who would be able to answer some of the difficult questions that come up now and then."
A larger picture
Texas Tech's movement toward opening a veterinary school has sparked discussion across the state regarding the demand for and supply of rural veterinarians. Research shows the demand is there and will continue to grow as an aging veterinary population begins to leave the industry.
But for one Texas Panhandle rancher, demand takes on an entirely different meaning.
Paul Defoor is co-chief executive officer of Cactus Feeders, an employee-owned business that produces beef and pork. Headquartered in Amarillo, Cactus Feeders operates 10 feedyards from the Texas High Plains to southwest Kansas, marketing approximately 1 million cattle per year, which makes it one of the largest cattle operations in the world. Cactus Feeders also owns approximately 8,000 mother cows that graze in an area that ranges from Odessa, Texas to Nebraska. Their pork operations are located in Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, producing 750,000 hogs per year.
In its operations, Cactus Feeders currently relies on five veterinarians to care for its animals, several of whom are closer to retirement than to starting out in the business. Replacing that experience when the time comes will be tough, and the demographics of the profession indicate a sustained surge in trained veterinarians will be required in the near future. Cactus Feeders also works with a host of Technical Service Veterinarians that are specialists in different areas, such as animal wellbeing, and many that are specialists in different veterinary technologies.
"I think there will be a serious void in the availability of qualified large-animal and rural veterinarians in the next decade," Defoor said.
Defoor said there is a bigger picture at stake. His concern is not just the demand of the industry for practicing veterinarians, but the demand to enter the industry by qualified potential veterinary students who are turned away by the limited number of students accepted to veterinary school each year.
"There are a lot of things I can say philosophically about the importance of access to a high-quality, affordable education and the impact that has on our society," Defoor said. "But what I should state more directly is an affirmation of the needs that are present today in veterinary medicine and an affirmation of the demographic challenges that await us tomorrow if we don't act today."
"Cactus is one of the largest food production companies in the world and we see the need for more veterinarians. We need those leaders who understand the science behind their decision making, but also have a comprehensive understanding of the impact on food production and animal wellbeing."
Cactus Feeders, who is among the group of trailblazing donors supporting the Texas Tech veterinary school, buys and sells a large number of livestock, and animal health is a critical part of its day-to-day management. It is also part of its "duty of care." The veterinarian plays a critical role in prescribing treatments for animals in their care and plays a large role in employee training and overseeing animal wellbeing programs.
"Getting sick is a natural part of life that generally occurs when stress and disease exposure occur simultaneously," Defoor said. "Separating and minimizing stress and exposure and building immunity prior to their occurrences are the basic challenges. Our veterinarians help us design programs and help us make adjustments in our operating system to do that."
DeWit faces many of the same challenges – changes in diseases, disease surveillance, disease testing and vaccinations all put the emphasis on trained veterinarians to help the industry stay profitable and sustainable.
"When Texas Tech opens up the vet school I think it can help us learn more about the management of large dairy operations, help us on the testing side of things, and, God forbid, an outbreak and how we can operate better, with more preventative measures and less antibiotics that we use and still do a better job of maintaining animal health overall," DeWit said.