The United States has too few veterinarians to meet the medical needs of its farm animals. Cornell University's veterinary college is helping to address the shortage by providing vet services to farmers in New York state and by training a new generation of livestock vets. Véronique LaCapra reports.
There are nearly 88 thousand veterinarians in the United States, but the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that only about one in nine works with farm animals - poultry, cattle and other livestock.
Veterinarian Rodrigo Bicalho, an assistant professor at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine, says a changing social demographic is behind that shortage. Bicalho's impression is that in the past, most people who went into veterinary medicine were from rural areas of the country.
"They wanted to go to vet school to learn about large animals and then to come back to their local regions and work as veterinarians," he says.
Today, only a small fraction of Americans work or live on farms, and most U.S. vet students come from urban areas. As a result, says Bicalho, they want to work with familiar pets like dogs and cats - not farm animals. And for vet students from the city, choosing a future on the farm may seem pretty daunting.
"The farmers usually start working very early in the day and finish late," explains Bicalho. "So we work hard hours, and we have emergency calls through the night."
Livestock vets are also exposed to the elements and to temperature extremes.
To help relieve the shortage of farm animal vets, Cornell veterinary professors provide medical services to area farms. In central New York state - the region around the Cornell campus - that means treating dairy cattle.
The veterinarians drive out to farms on a weekly or biweekly basis. Most routine visits involve pregnancy diagnosis.
"The farmers are trying to breed the cows constantly, because producing milk is a mother's job," says Bicalho. In order to keep producing milk, cows must get pregnant and have calves. On large dairy farms, the Cornell veterinarians will perform between 50 and 300 pregnancy diagnoses in a single day.
At the Sunnyside Dairy in Genoa, New York, about 28 hundred cows depend on Bicalho and his colleagues for medical care.
"Usually cows have their calves on their own. They actually don't need much help," says Bicalho. But as with all mammals, including humans, cows sometimes have complications during birth.
"We try to correct those complications and still have a normal birth through the birth canal, but sometimes that's not possible," he says.
When a cow isn't able to have a normal birth, Bicalho will perform a Caesarian section, right there on the farm.
"We do the anesthesia, tranquilization, and we actually remove the calf through the left or the right flank depending on the position of the calf," he says.
Cornell vets also respond to emergency calls from farmers, when animals get sick. Usually, they get very little information over the phone, says Bicalho.
"You just know that the animal is not doing well," he says.
The vets have to go to the farm to diagnose an animal's condition and to make recommendations for treatment.
Cornell students in their last year of vet school may accompany their professors on these calls. Bicalho explains that this is one of the ways that the university encourages students who are interested in farm animal medicine.
"Each clinician will have one or two students in the truck all the time," he says.
The vet professors teach the students on a one-on-one basis.
"When we're performing procedures, they're actually doing a lot of it under our supervision so that they have hands-on experience of everything that we do," Bicalho says.
Bicalho stresses the importance of his role as a teacher: "The whole purpose of this entire clinic is to teach."
As professors at a major university, he and his colleagues are there to train students in the practice of veterinary medicine. The purpose of having clients, says Bicalho, is to pass knowledge on to students.
Cornell's responsibility in training new farm animal veterinarians could become even more critical over the next decade. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the supply of food animal vets will fall short of demand by as much as 5 percent each year, while the need for their services will continue to rise.