The future of the dairy veterinarian

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I am the current president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. Representing the MVMA, I recently attended the white coat ceremony at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
During this ceremony, students transitioning from their third to fourth year come on stage and ceremoniously put on their white lab coats with the assistance of faculty and others, including the MVMA president. Typically, the final year of veterinary school is directed toward clinical work, hence the need for the white coats. Of course, for food animal students, we should really help them put on coveralls instead of white coats.
Recently, a young veterinarian applying for a position at our practice asked me, “Do you think there is a future for dairy veterinarians?”
This was a perceptive question, because, as you all know, the dairy industry has changed dramatically in the last few decades. For example, while we did not have a white coat ceremony back in 1980 when I would have been coated, there were about 28,000 dairy farms in the state of Minnesota. Now there are 2,600. That is a drop of 91%.
Over the same period, Wisconsin has lost about 86% of its dairy farms. Similar statistics exist for other midwestern states, with the notable exception of South Dakota. While the number of cows in most midwestern states has not dropped nearly as much during that period, the demand for dairy veterinarians is more closely related to the number of farms than the number of cows.
So back to the question, the simple answer is yes. But, of course, it is complicated. During the white coat ceremony, I saw over 100 bright, optimistic young faces who will be the future of the profession. I was pleased to see that, while some came from all over the globe, including China and Vietnam, a significant number were from rural areas of Minnesota and an even large number listed their main area of interest as food animal or mixed.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last decade, you have heard that there is a shortage of veterinarians in rural America. If one polls dairy and beef producers, for example, many will say they need more veterinarians in their area.
The American Association of Bovine Practitioners created a task force to examine the issue over 10 years ago. The task force concluded that, while there were many areas that were underserved by veterinary services in the United States, there was not an actual shortage of bovine veterinarians.
Since then, especially during the pandemic, demand for small animal veterinarians skyrocketed and created an overall shortage of veterinarians, including in some food animal practices. For example, the 2022 unemployment rate for veterinarians in the United States was only 0.5%. However, in the longer term, the market for dairy veterinary services has declined and continues to, and this has paradoxically created the situation of not enough dairy veterinarians in some areas. This means adding more veterinarians to the supply will not solve the problem.
In a growing market, there is plenty of economic power to support new positions. In a shrinking market, however, the reverse is true. So as the number of veterinarians an area can support goes down, it creates shortages as doctors retire or leave the area. The new economics do not support replacement veterinarians. The result is fewer practicing dairy veterinarians and areas where competent veterinary services are hard to find.
Why is yes the answer to our young veterinarian’s question? It is because there will still be opportunities, though fewer, for new doctors to succeed. Ultimately, veterinarians need to provide significant value to dairy businesses to thrive. If the dairy industry is strong and veterinarians can meet that challenge, dairy veterinarians will succeed. But, things will be different. For example, the model of a well-paid professional driving long distances in an expensive vehicle with thousands of dollars of drugs onboard to see individual cows will become more unusual. This is because cows have not increased in value in real dollars since 1980 while the cost of vehicles and labor has. On the other hand, larger farms have a larger revenue base on which to spread farm-based costs rather than individual animal-based costs. This means that the demand for farm-based rather than animal-based services such as designing protocols and training employees, for example, may increase. In fact, in many places of the United States, including the Upper Midwest, speaking Spanish has become an important skill for dairy veterinarians.
Many of the technical procedures veterinarians have done and do today will be done by farm staff or perhaps by veterinary assistants and certified veterinary technicians. As is often the case, change is hard, and sometimes the path to the future is bumpy and difficult. The bright eyes of those enthusiastic, young, soon-to-be veterinarians cannot see into the future. But, the future will be there for those who adapt to the new realities and are able to meet the needs of the future dairy industry.
Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minnesota. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at bennettnvac@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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