Is Tennessee experiencing a shortage in the availability of veterinary care for its large-animal and food-animal industries? How would such a shortage affect our economy? These questions are on the minds of producers, veterinarians and others depending on animal-based agriculture. The conundrum is also of concern to legislators, government agencies and those who serve the public interest.

Recently, Dr. Joseph DiPietro, University of Tennessee vice-president for agriculture, and Dr. Michael Blackwell, dean of the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, presented to the State General Assembly House Agriculture Committee the results of UT Institute of Agriculture analyses of the state's situation with regard to the availability of veterinary services.

The studies were conducted at the request of the legislative body. Teams of researchers from the College of Veterinary Medicine and from the Department of Agricultural Economics surveyed state veterinary practitioners and livestock producers, and public forums solicited input from interested parties in each of the state's grand divisions.

As with most instances where science, economics and societal needs collide, the issue is complicated. While many areas of the state are not currently experiencing a shortage of veterinary services, others seemingly are.

Eighteen percent of producers surveyed indicated they had problems obtaining veterinary services during the past year, with the most commonly experienced problem being a delay in getting a veterinarian to visit the farm.

Large/mixed animal veterinarian services exist where larger numbers of cattle are located in the state. However, 27 counties in Tennessee have two or fewer veterinarians. In a state where animal-based agriculture represents fully half — 50.7 percent — of the state's $2.5 billion annual agriculture-based revenues, access to adequate veterinary care is vital to the state's economy.

Of the state's 51,000 livestock producers, those who reported a problem obtaining veterinary services estimated their average financial loss due to a lack of services at $1965 per producer. One study projected these financial losses to exceed $10 million across the state.

Veterinarians and others participating in the studies recognized the availability of adequate veterinary care as essential to maintaining the safety and wholesomeness of food-animal products and to minimizing the public's risk of contracting food borne illness.

Public health concerns are also central in the relationship between the need for an adequate number of veterinarians and monitoring potential zoonotic disease outbreaks. Zoonotic diseases, for example avian influenza, have the potential to affect the health of animals and humans alike.

Finally, the health status of companion animals in rural areas is another issue. The state's equine population now numbers more than 210,000 animals worth an estimated $565 million at an average value of $2700 per animal.

Among the concerns expressed by livestock producers at the public forums was how to increase the number of veterinary students choosing to practice large animal and food animal medicine. Veterinary students interested in such practices expressed worries about financial security as they face the tremendous responsibility of repaying student loan debts averaging $80,000.

On average, rural-based practices do not generate the same level of economic returns as small-animal, urban practices, and veterinarians operating rural practices often face longer periods of indebtedness.

On a positive note, the studies clarified the measurable impact of having a veterinary college in the state. The UT College of Veterinary Medicine is one of only 28 veterinary colleges in the nation, and Dean Blackwell was pleased with results that showed the value of the school to the state.

“We have data that indicate the UT College of Veterinary Medicine has trained more than 50 percent of the veterinarians practicing in Tennessee. We are most excited to learn that over half — 54 percent — of the veterinarians in rural Tennessee communities were trained by UTCVM,” Blackwell said. “This proves we are doing some things right.”

While the studies affirm the economic and social need for veterinarians to practice in rural areas, they are not conclusive as to what actions would ensure all the state's livestock producers adequate access to veterinary care. Proposed solutions range from letting the market for veterinarian services dictate the demand, to increasing UTCVM enrollment and instituting state-sponsored educational debt forgiveness.

“It's now up to our state lawmakers to sort out what kind of legislation, if any, is needed to help ensure the vitality of the state's animal-based industries,” said UTIA's DiPietro. “The Institute stands ready to help in any way we can. It's fundamental to our role as a land-grant institution,” he said.

The collection of studies is available online at http://www.agriculture.utk.edu/news/ruralvetstudy/introduction.htm