CORUNNA — On a blustery, cold December morning that cut through the walls of Corner Oak Farm’s milking cow barn, Dr. Erwin Lenneman arrived after a 27-mile trek to inspect the reproductive health of the farm’s dairy cows.
As he inspected nearly 30 cows at the Grand Blanc farm, Lenneman used his veterinary expertise along with his physical strength and familiarity with livestock to get the job done.
Raised on a small farm in Portland, Lenneman became accustomed to working with large animals long before he took his first veterinarian course at Michigan State University. There, he fell in love with his future profession as he worked at a dairy barn.
But for many veterinarian students, the lifestyle associated with working in a rural veterinary practice just doesn’t have the same draw.
“(In) the College of Veterinary Medicine, for instance, at Michigan State University, you’re going to find that there’s a very small percentage of the students who are focusing on food animal veterinarian,” Michigan Farm Bureau Livestock and Dairy Specialist Ernie Birchmeier said. “There is a much higher percentage that are focusing on servicing the pet and companion animal community, versus going out and serving the food animal industry.”
Dr. Kent Ames, professor in large animal clinical sciences at MSU, said he has seen this trend develop first hand.
While Ames saw about 12 to 15 students out of a class of 100 opting to practice as food animal veterinarians in the early 1980s, that number decreased to only about 3 to 5 students in classes 10 years ago, he said. Now Ames estimates about 10 to 12 out of 100 students are hoping to go into practice as food animal veterinarians.
He added the reason for the past decrease in food animal veterinary students has much to do with lifestyle goals, student demographics and economics.
The average student graduating from MSU’s veterinary school will have somewhere around $125,000 to $130,000 in debt, Ames said. And some students choose to study further to become specialists since they can typically command a higher salary than a general practitioner and are able to focus on a specific interest, he added.
The lifestyle and physical toll of working with food animals in a rural practice also doesn’t appeal to as many students nowadays, Ames said.
Whereas veterinarians used to put their “life and soul” into building practices and expected to be on call 24/7 for emergencies, many younger veterinarians aren’t interested in sacrificing their freedom on nights or weekends and acquiring more debt by buying a practice, Ames said.
The physical and environmental conditions that come with the job also can be a deterrent.
“When you go into large animal it is physically difficult. You’re outside — it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s hot. It’s whatever the weather is, and some people really like that about large animal,” Ames said. “But for some, that keeps some people away.”
Conversely, Ames said veterinarians working with small animals can often keep regular working hours while working in facilities with technology and equipment.
Additionally, as the number of people working and living on farms has decreased, so has the number of veterinary students hailing from rural backgrounds, he added.
But with less veterinary school graduates going into rural practices, some areas of Michigan are experiencing shortages of food animal veterinarians, Ames said.
“When you get into the average graduating class at from the College of Veterinary Medicine at MSU, you’re looking at less than 10 percent of the graduating class that actually has focused solely on food animal production medicine,” Birchmeier said. “That’s echoed across the country, and ultimately you are going to run into a problem when you don’t have enough people graduating with the skill set to serve that need.”
Across the country, demand for food animal veterinarians is especially seen in rural areas that contain more livestock and less people, Birchmeier said. He added, in comparison, farmers in Shiawassee County and the mid-Michigan area are in “good shape.”
“We’ve got some very good…veterinarians who understand the area extremely well and do a very nice job servicing their clients,” Birchmeier said. “For the most part, we’re in pretty good shape in the mid-Michigan area.”
A changing operation
When Lenneman began caring for large and small animals through his mixed practice, Heritage Acres Veterinary Services in Corunna, about 75 percent of his cases were comprised of large-animal work and the rest were small-animal cases.
About 25 years later, that number has been turned on its head.
Now, Lenneman depends on small-animal work to keep his business afloat. And for the large-animal work he continues to do, Lenneman said it’s not uncommon to travel as far as 30 miles for work.
“There used to be a farm literally around the corner from me,” Lenneman said. “There was a dairy farm across the road from me. They’re all gone.”
Dr. Tim Weisenberger, a large animal veterinarian at Animal Health Care of Chesaning, said he also travels farther for work as cattle farms have increased in size and become fewer in number. But Weisenberger, who began practicing about 20 years ago, said while the number of farms has fallen, his load of large animal work has stayed relatively the same.
“We still do the same amount of large animal work as we’ve always done,” Weisenberger said. “We just have to visit fewer places, and we do more work at each place because the farms are much larger than they used to be.”
From 1974 to 2007, the number of beef and dairy cattle farms across the country has decreased nearly 36 percent — from 1,503,244 in 1974 to 963,669 farms in 2007, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. In that same time, Michigan and Shiawassee County’s cattle farms have been cut in half — with the state’s farms decreasing from 30,665 to 14,454 and the county’s farms falling from 598 to 288.
The average number of cattle per farm, including both beef and dairy cattle, has risen across the board from 1974 to 2007. In Shiawassee County the average has risen from nearly 43 to about 55 cattle per farm. In Michigan, the average has increased from almost 47 cattle per farm to about 73.
While economic conditions have pushed many smaller farms to either go out of business or become a larger farm, this trend, at least for veterinarians, has been a change for the better, Weisenberger said.
“We do a lot less emergency work, after-hours work, because a lot of your larger farms have people capable of handling some of that stuff on their own,” Weisenberger said. “We also focus a lot more on preventing diseases and sickness than treating diseases.”
Even with farmers taking on some tasks previously performed by veterinarians, area veterinarians still emphasized the importance of the relationship between farmers and food animal veterinarians.
For farmers working with food-producing animals, veterinarians help provide oversight to ensure livestock are getting the right therapies and are being treated correctly, Ames said.
Veterinarians’ medical expertise is also critical for ensuring quality food production and a farm’s profitability, Birchmeier added.
“They’re obviously the first line of defense when it comes to dealing with a health issue on the farm, but also can be very important when it comes to homeland security issues — is this a disease that’s potentially going to have an impact on our food supply or our overall animal health,” Birchmeier said. “That relationship between a veterinarian and a farmer is critical.”