Texas Tech University

Texas' Agriculture, Rural Communities in Need of More Veterinarians

George Watson

April 24, 2019

Texas Tech has an innovative, cost-efficient model for a new School of Veterinary Medicine that will address the shortage of veterinarians in Texas’ small, regional and agricultural communities.

Larry Hancock has raised dairy cows outside of Muleshoe for more than 40 years, starting with 300 head in 1978 and growing to 4,000 milking cows today.

Hancock considered himself lucky when he was able to find a veterinarian in Muleshoe who was not only interested in dairy cow medicine, but who also was putting down roots in a rural community. Four decades later, they are still together, having developed a relationship with a high level of trust.

Dairy Cows
The Texas Panhandle leads the nation in dairy cow production.

Unfortunately, in today's Texas, Hancock's situation is the exception instead of the norm. In fact, there is a measurable shortage of rural veterinarians throughout a state that leads the nation in cattle, sheep and goat production and has the highest number of horses and food and fiber animals in the U.S.

The Texas Panhandle region has the highest density of cattle in the country, yet the state ranks last among the 10 most populous states in the U.S. for the ratio of cattle to veterinarians. And it's not getting better.

According to data compiled by the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, 25 percent of veterinarians in Texas' counties with greater than 50,000 residents are over the age of 60. In the remaining 187 counties, or 74 percent of all Texas counties, incidentally where most of the state's livestock are raised, 41 percent of the veterinarians are over the age of 60.

Also, approximately 800 veterinarians, or 40 percent, of the USDA's veterinary workforces was eligible for retirement starting in 2016.

"I can't stress enough the importance of that relationship with the veterinarian and large dairy producers," Hancock told the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs in the 85th Texas Legislature. "The vet is responsible for and helps in reproduction, in general cow health, in the vaccination program and the treatment protocol and overall management of the farm. He needs to know the owners, the workers, and the protocols the farmer wants carried out, and he needs to know the animals."

Texas Tech has a plan to address that shortage and provide rural areas with the kinds of veterinarians ranchers and farmers can trust and build a relationship with. The Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo will be an innovative, world-class school that addresses the critical shortage of veterinarians threatening small, regional and agricultural communities throughout Texas. It is designed to be a cost-efficient school that will attract students with a passion for rural veterinary care and graduate career-ready veterinarians to serve the state.

For some in the industry, it is a critical issue that needs to be addressed quickly.

"There is definitely a shortage, and we can say that maybe they are in the wrong place, but if they are, there's still a shortage," rancher Coleman Locke of Hungerford, Texas, near Houston, who is also a member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, told the same Senate subcommittee. "I live 100 miles from the existing veterinary school, and there is a shortage where I live, so I know there's got to be a shortage in far West Texas or in the Panhandle. In my opinion, more than one veterinary school would address that shortage."

No one knows the impact a new veterinary school will have in the area and around the state better than veterinarian Tom Portillo. He is the manager of animal health and well-being for Amarillo-based Friona Industries, one of the leading cattle feeding businesses in the world. Portillo oversees the health and welfare of animals in eight state-of-the-art feedyards and one of the first to make a gift to the Texas Tech veterinary school effort after examining the university's approach to providing a cost-effective education.

"This type of program will be able to tap into that candidate pool, those people who do have an aptitude and desire to practice in rural America and focus on production-animal medicine, even regulatory medicine," Portillo said. "That's where the need is. Not only will Texas Tech shift that paradigm, but with success, they will start forcing other veterinary schools and other veterinary programs to look up and start rethinking their paradigm as well."

Rancher and horses
A shortage of rural veterinarians is threatening animal and human health.

Ranchers and dairy farmers depend on knowledgeable, rural animal veterinarians for their success. Yet according to a 2016 report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, of the 6,600 practicing veterinarians in Texas, the majority focuses on small animals, while only 180 veterinarians exclusively serve livestock in rural areas.

Kynan Sturgess, a veterinarian from Hereford who treats both small and large animals, is one of those rural veterinarians caring for livestock and knows the severity and problems with the current shortage.

"The need is definitely there or I wouldn't be traveling that much," Sturgess said, who also testified to the Senate subcommittee. "We cover a pretty large territory. I run from Lubbock on a routine basis all the way up to Sublette, Kansas. We also go over to the middle of New Mexico because there's a veterinarian shortage there as well."

"Our livestock producers don't convert over into a believer in you as a veterinarian until they've seen you do things and work with you," Sturgess said. "Normally, my work day is spent about half working with our crews in feedlots, from the cowboys, management team, and processors, in making sure that we are providing a consistent, safe food supply. We are also helping keep our clients profitable in their endeavors to feed cattle. Then, most of my remaining time is spent in the clinic."

Sturgess is a partner at Hereford Veterinary Clinic and has two other veterinary partners and an associate veterinarian who all work together to meet the high demands for veterinary care in rural areas.

More than 70 percent of the clinic's gross income comes from food-animal practice, and Sturgess notes that running a rural veterinary clinic is a successful business and offers opportunities for incoming veterinarians, despite what some may say.

"There are plenty of opportunities to make a nice income in rural America," Sturgess said. "In the last 25 or so years, we've hired nine veterinarians, and while three were from Texas A&M, the rest were from Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Colorado State, Iowa State and Auburn. The last vet we hired took us a year to find."

"A second veterinary school is definitely something that fits in with Texas. If you think about the states that have two veterinary schools ... you can't tell me Texas doesn't have room for a second."