It’s the middle of the night, and the phone is ringing at Michelle Schmidt’s home. Schmidt picks up the receiver and is out the door. Her daughter, 7-year-old Jaymi, asks her mommy not to leave.
“Jaymi, you know I can’t do that,” Schmidt says to her daughter. “It’s a mare having a baby. She can’t wait.”
Schmidt starts work each morning unsure of what the day will bring. Emergencies require a flexible schedule. She’s on call every hour of every day and in all weather.
“Last week, I was belly-down in the snow storm pulling lambs (from a sheep giving birth),” Schmidt said during a recent interview. “Those facilities aren’t as nice as being inside.”
Schmidt treats both small and large animals at her practice, Animal Medical Services LLC, off Route OO in Hallsville. She works out of a small white house that includes an office lined with pet food and a small-animal work area. Just out the back door, a barn with stables and a corral holds several young horses, set to the forefront of a barren pasture with little evidence of the snowfall.
Schmidt has always practiced in a rural setting. Before working as Hallsville’s sole veterinarian, she was an associate veterinarian in a mixed-animal practice in Centralia.
“I came from a lot more rural setting than this,” Schmidt said. “I always figured I’d do this sort of practice.”
But rural veterinarians such as Schmidt are becoming hard to find. Fewer veterinary students come from agricultural backgrounds, and even fewer want to practice in rural areas. Higher wages and better work environments lure most veterinary students into small-animal practices in metropolitan areas. That leaves animal owners in rural areas, especially owners of large animals, with few options for veterinary care.
Ronald Cott, who once practiced as a veterinarian in Kansas City, is associate dean of student and alumni affairs for the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. He said the entire veterinary profession is aware of the need for more veterinarians, especially in large-animal practices. He said the steady decline in the number of rural family farms in the United States has led to fewer veterinary students coming from rural backgrounds.
In fact, 15 of 74, or about 20 percent of accepted veterinary students in the MU veterinary college’s class of 2010, are from farm backgrounds.
Even those who enter college with a rural practice in mind often find new opportunities after four or more years in veterinary school. Cott said students come to realize that the owners of large food animals, such as cattle and swine, make treatment decisions based on the economic value of their livestock. Many pet owners, on the other hand, will spend a lot of money to ensure their dogs, cats or other pets remain healthy.
Cott said some procedures and surgeries for small animals can cost as much as $8,000. Farmers just won’t invest that kind of money in livestock when the cost surpasses the animal’s worth. Some horses are considered companion animals, like pets, so an increasing number of veterinarians specifically practice in equine and small-animal medicine.
Cott said many veterinary students leave school with $80,000 to $100,000 in debt. They see small-animal practices, especially in metro areas, as a better way to relieve the financial pressure.
The government and several colleges are trying to help by making more money available to students who want to practice in rural areas. Missouri Senate Bill No. 320, proposed by Sen. Dan Clemens, R-Marshfield, would help repay the loans of graduates who enter large-animal practice in rural areas. The bill would require a committee of veterinarians and administrators in the veterinary college to assess areas of need.
The MU veterinary college grants 120 scholarships each year to students. Several go specifically to students with an interest in food-animal medicine.
Despite the incentives, small-animal practices still require fewer hours on the job and pay more. Cott said small-animal practices are normally 8 to 5 Monday through Friday, with few weekends.
“Some older veterinarians say that younger veterinarians have a lack of work ethic today,” Cott said. “But I admire them for putting their foot down and saying, ‘I want a job that revolves around my family, not a family that revolves around my job.’”
Cliff Miller, owner of Green Hills Veterinary Clinic in Moberly, said lifestyle is the biggest reason that fewer vets choose large-animal practice. Miller, who graduated from MU in 2000, began his career as a small-animal vet in Kansas City but started a mixed-animal practice in 2003.
Now Miller treats cattle, horses, sheep, goats, dogs and cats. He even cared for a guinea pig recently.
“I love the fact that I see something new and different everyday,” Miller said. “There’s no routine day at work.”
Schmidt spends about 45 percent of work time with horses, but said living in a rural area requires mixed-animal exposure.
Schmidt, also a graduate of MU, said there was a need for rural vets when she was in school more than 16 years ago. But the problem has worsened.
“My class was half women, and they thought that was the cause (of fewer rural vets),” Schmidt said.
Fifty-seven of MU’s 74-student veterinary class of 2010 are women, but Cott said the right equipment allows women to work with large animals as well as men can.
Although the general work environment is harsher for large-animal vets, Schmidt said she loves the job.
“I’d rather be here and working with farmers than working out of an office,” Schmidt said. “If I were just small-animal, all I’d see are four white walls every day.”
Schmidt said her small-animal clients understand when farm emergencies arise and require her to leave. She had a client bring in a dog for chemotherapy recently, but she got a call about a horse having trouble giving birth at the same time.
“I was out the drive telling them, ‘I’ve got to go take care of this mare,’” Schmidt said. “They told me, ‘No problem, we’ll be here when you get back.’”
The External Food Animal Service and Theriogenology Teaching Program, or EFASTP, at MU tries to generate interest in rural practice among students by having them work in rural areas for a grade. Cott said the program exposes them to the lifestyle and the lower cost of living in rural America.
Miller said programs like this are important, especially in areas like Missouri that could face an even greater shortage of rural vets.
“So many (rural vets) are at or even above retirement age,” Miller said. “This could mean a real shortage.”
Kevin Lesczynski and Stacey Bone are both in their third year of veterinary school at MU. Lesczynski wants to work in a mixed-animal practice, mainly with large animals.
Lesczynski grew up in a rural area and said working with large animals provides different challenges.
“I enjoy not only helping the animal, but helping farmers make production and management decisions,” Lesczynski said.
Lesczynski, who did an EFASTP rotation last fall, said working directly with veterinarians in the field has helped him define who he wants to be. He said he also finds the variety of species and cases in small-animal medicine interesting.
Bone has never considered working with large animals. He said he mainly grew up around small animals and has limited large-animal experience.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that the best veterinarians are those who have spent their whole lives around the animals they would like to treat,” Bone said. “Anyone can learn diseases and their treatments, but practical knowledge is hard to learn.”
Cott said his personal solution to salvaging rural veterinary practice would be to have six or seven veterinarians serve each county from a single clinic in a setup similar to a dental or regular medical clinic. He said recruiting more students with backgrounds in farming might also generate more interest.
“In reality, we need to live, make family time and be away from work to continue to enjoy it,” Miller said.
A portion of this report first aired Monday during “News At 10” on KMIZ/Channel 17 ABC, Columbia.