Life as a small-town vet
When Dr. Cliff Miller graduated from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in 2000, the faculty named him most likely to succeed in his class. Today, Miller’s Green Hills Veterinary Clinic in Moberly, Mo., is considered by several industry leaders as one of the state’s most successful mixed-animal practices.
“There’s a view that mixed-animal practitioners spend two-thirds of their time on large animals such as cattle and hogs, but earn two-thirds of their income from small pets,” said Richard Antweiler, executive director of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA). “Vets who deal with large animals have to be very good to survive, and Dr. Miller runs one heck of a practice. He’s on the cutting edge.”
The MVMA estimates that of about 2,000 veterinarians practicing in Missouri, around 30 percent handle large animals. In certain areas of MFA territory, however, large-animal practitioners are in short supply, Antweiler said.
“If you’re raising cattle, and there’s no readily available vet, that’s a problem,” he said.
Dr. Tony Martin, staff veterinarian for MFA Incorporated for 32 years, has seen a drop in the number of rural large-animal vets as farm numbers have declined. Martin manages MFA’s Animal Health Department and oversees sales of vaccines, medications, ear-tag identifications and feed additives.
“I receive a significant number of calls from MFA dealers seeking answers to their customers’ questions,” Martin said. “It’s especially tough to get answers in areas where local vets have retired or left.”
Dr. Fred Gingrich, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, thinks the issue isn’t a shortage of vets but rather a distribution problem. In 2016, an association task force studied the issue.
“It was their opinion that there is not currently a shortage of veterinarians for rural food supply,” Gingrich said. “However, underserved rural areas may not be able to sustain a veterinary practice.”
In fact, the task force expressed concern that an oversupply of vet-school graduates, along with the recession that began in 2008 and a decline in the number of livestock operators, could lead to too many large-animal vets. The association has 5,000 members and estimates that up to 12,000 vets in the U.S. report some cattle practice activity. That’s out of 120,652 veterinarian positions in the U.S., according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Dr. Bonnie Rush, interim dean of the Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine, takes a more positive stance.
“Demand for veterinarians of all disciplines is at an all-time high,” she said.
Vets who treat large animals enjoy a number of benefits. The cost of living is usually lower in rural areas, and grant programs are available for students who agree to practice in remote locations.
Gingrich adds that plenty of successful vets treat large animals, and Miller’s thriving practice backs up that claim. Miller started his clinic in 2003 as the lone veterinarian with two employees. Today, he employs three other vets, all graduates of the Mizzou vet school.
“I have been fortunate to attract quality mixed-animal vets without a problem,” he said.
In addition, Miller employs 12 other team members, including four veterinary technicians with two-year degrees.
“We would have a hard time doing what we do without vet techs,” he said. “It’s even harder to find and retain qualified vet techs in rural Missouri than it is to attract veterinarians.”
Miller grew up raising hogs and cattle in 4-H and FFA. He, his wife, Suzanne, and their three sons—Colin, 11, Grant, 9, and Ryan, 6—live in Miller’s hometown of Moberly. Miller and his dad, Ed, partner on a nearby cattle and grain operation.
“I started telling people in second grade that my career goal was to become a vet,” said Miller, immediate past president of the MVMA.
There’s no normal day in his mixed-animal practice, Miller said. Most the time he works in the clinic, which includes facilities for large and small animals, but he also makes farm visits. In late January, he called on a cattle operation when the temperature fell to minus 10 degrees. But he said the benefits of working outdoors with animals in beautiful weather offsets brutally cold or scorching hot days.
“Everyone knows that a puppy becomes part of the family, but cattle producers also share a bond with their animals,” Miller said. “They nurse calves in cold weather and spend hours in the summer heat making sure the animals have feed and water.”
Most of Miller’s cattle practice involves reproduction and obstetrics.
“We help improve genetics, and make sure the bull is able to breed,” he said. “We help cows get pregnant, test whether they’re pregnant, and make emergency visits for problem births.”
The average Missouri cattle herd is about 40 cows, and Miller’s customers reflect those numbers. Many work a full-time job while raising cows on the side. Miller also serves a few larger operations.
“In Missouri, we’re fortunate to have healthy herds, and most farmers raise their own grass and forage,” he said. “But last year’s drought forced many growers to purchase hay at a time when cattle prices were down.”
In 2017, the Federal Drug Administration initiated a Veterinary Feed Directive requiring livestock growers to use certain antibiotic products in feed and water only on the order of a veterinarian.
“We have seen some increase in demand on our time as a result, but most of our customers were already using us for vet services,” Miller said.
Another trend that may help producers and their vets is the move toward ear-tag programs that identify cattle as meeting certain health standards, from nutrition to vaccination. Miller works with customers who participate in programs such as MFA’s Health Track, a preconditioning verification program for beef calves.
“When cattle prices drop, that’s when smaller producers on the fringes tend to cut programs like this that might help,” Miller said. “There’s proof that buyers are willing to pay a higher price for that ear-tag guarantee.”
K-State’s Rush agrees that there’s a major trend toward producers and their veterinarians gathering more data on livestock with a goal of making better decisions for animal health, welfare and increased profits.
“Large animal and rural practices continue to adopt new technology, allowing more efficient and detailed, real-time communications with clients,” she said.
Antweiler said he believes that vets and livestock growers will cooperate more in the future.
“There’s more professionalism coming into the cattle business,” he said, “and I hope that changing mindset prompts more growers to partner with vets to improve cattle health and genetics, which leads to greater grower profits.”
Miller hatched an idea that illustrates how a vet can work with smaller cattle producers to increase earnings. For nine years he’s partnered with eight customers to pool calves and market them together.
“I work on health and nutrition and predict a market date based on projected weight gain,” he said. “We try to match the timing with positive market prices. We put together a semi-load and market through an online video auction. Buyers are willing to pay more for animals with health-related ear tags, along with a uniform package with calves of the same size and sex.”
Despite the challenges of a large-animal veterinary practice, Miller said he loves working with animals and the people who care for them. Still, that passion isn’t always enough to succeed. It takes a higher level of dedication.
“Our mission is to exceed people’s expectations, recommend best practices and make sure we’re able to offer them,” Miller said. “We always advocate for the patient and help them live a healthy life. If you do that, economic returns follow.”
Female veterinarians outnumber their male counterparts
Your next large-animal veterinarian may be a woman.
“Every college of veterinary medicine in North America has more female students than male,” said Bonnie Rush, interim dean of Kansas State University’s vet school. “Some are not only going into large animal practice, but they are also thriving.”
Dr. Jessica Stroupe falls into those statistics. The mixed-animal veterinarian graduated from the University of Missouri veterinary college in 2012, and she already owns her own practice in her rural hometown of Fayette, Mo. During and following vet school, Stroupe worked with the owners of Howard County Veterinary Service, Dr. Richard Taylor and Dr. Kenneth Vroman. Taylor retired in 2012 when Stroupe started at the clinic, and she took over the business when Vroman retired in 2016.
“When the opportunity came up, I jumped in,” Stroupe said. About half of her practice involves cattle, and the rest is companion animals, including cats, dogs and horses.
Even though female large-animal veterinarians may have clients here and there who at first doubt their abilities, Stroupe said successful interactions can prove their value and build respect. Her cattle-producing clients were accustomed to working with male veterinarians, and it took time to build trust.
“I’m relatively small, at least compared to my male counterparts, and when I showed up with my blond ponytail, I could see doubt on their faces,” Stroupe said. “But then they saw that I would roll up my sleeves and get the job done.”
Dr. Fred Gingrich, executive director of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, reports that one-third of the association’s 5,000 members are female.
“Gender plays no role in the success of a bovine practitioner,” he said. “If you look at those graduating in the last 10 years, the majority are female.”
While many students know they want to be a vet from childhood, Stroupe took a winding path. She grew up as a town kid in Fayette and attended the University of West Florida planning to become a marine biologist.
“Along the way, my interest in animals grew broader,” Stroupe said.
Most students complete four years of undergraduate studies before applying to vet college. Stroupe didn’t decide to become a vet until just before her junior year. She built up the academic prerequisites and met the 400 hours of working with animals required by shadowing a veterinarian and working at an animal sanctuary. The Mizzou vet school accepted her early—prior to her senior year.
The cost of education can be daunting, but Stroupe avoided a large debt load by earning academic and athletic scholarships for her undergraduate study. She excelled in cross-country and track in high school and college, and eventually ran in the Boston Marathon. An anonymous donor provided a scholarship for her final year of vet school.
While Stroupe never intended to return to Fayette, she married her high school sweetheart, Patrick, who worked on his parents’ dairy farm while she commuted to vet school in Columbia. They built a tiny cabin on the farm to minimize expenses. She worked weekends at the vet clinic and lived frugally, driving an old Toyota, packing her lunch and managing without a smartphone.
“This allowed me to graduate with significantly less debt than most of my classmates, who carried an average debt load of $145,000 each,” Stroupe said. “Today, my loans are almost paid off.”
Stroupe discovered the benefits of living in a small town when she developed cancer in 2017. She received great support from the community, her family and the clinic staff.
“Knowing my patients and clients were taken care of made my treatment and recovery much easier,” Stroupe said.
She and Patrick are now parents to 2-year-old son, Leland, and they built a larger home for their growing family. Being a wife and mother while running a veterinary practice can be challenging, Stroupe said, but her passion for working with animals makes it all worthwhile.
“There are times when you get an emergency call during dinner, and you have to scramble to find childcare,” she said. “Most practices don’t provide paid maternity leave, and in many cases, women return to work before they are ready. There are balance issues, but I love my job.”
Grants available for rural vets
Aspiring veterinarians willing to work in underserved rural areas are eligible for several types of grants to help with education costs.
The state of Missouri offers the Dr. Merrill Townley Large Animal Veterinary Student Loan Program. The loan provides $20,000 for living and educational expenses incurred during their veterinary education process for six individuals per academic year. The loans are forgiven provided the students practice large-animal veterinary medicine in a defined area of need ($20,000 for each year of service provided). Applicants are selected by an appointed advisory committee on an annual basis. For more information, contact the Missouri State Veterinarian’s office at 573-751-3377 or visit online at agriculture.mo.gov/connect/ youth/vetstudent.php.
The Veterinary Training Program for Rural Kansas, a state-funded workforce development program at K-State, promotes rural practice success. Five students are enrolled in every class and receive $20,000 a year in loan forgiveness for each year after serving an underserved county in Kansas for a minimum of four years. Contact 785-532-4892 or visit online vet.k-state.edu.
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