Rachel Friedrich loves animals, as do all of her classmates at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. But most of her classmates would rather work with dogs and cats than cows.  

Friedrich says she estimates that 40 of the 110 third-year veterinary students at IowaState have a “strong interest in mixed or food-animal practice.” That is surprisingly high, considering trends elsewhere in the nation. At veterinary schools that draw fewer students from rural areas, the percentage interested in food-animal practice is generally much less.

Rick Sibbel, director of global technical services for Schering Plough Animal Health, points out that of the 2,800 veterinary students who graduated in the U.S., last year, only about 80 have an interest in food-animal practice. That is less than 3 percent.

Sibbel and others in the veterinary profession are sounding the alarm: There is an impending shortage of large-animal or food-animal veterinarians and steps should be taken immediately to address it.

Part of it will involve re-inventing the veterinary profession. What’s worked well for many established practitioners — and provided them with a satisfying career — may not necessarily be the way things are done in the future. For instance, the American public will increasingly turn to the veterinary profession to safeguard the food supply. Instead of being large-animal veterinarians, many veterinarians will be known as food-supply veterinarians.

And, part of it will involve veterinarians taking a stronger role in recruiting young people into the profession and mentoring them.

“As we move forward in this profession, we need to start thinking strategically ahead of the curve,” Sibbel told his fellow practitioners at the recent Minnesota Dairy Health Conference.

Friedrich and some of her fellow students at IowaState are already taking up the challenge. They have formed the Veterinary Student Mixed Animal Recruitment Team (V-SMART) to address the need for food-animal or food-supply veterinarians. The group goes out to high schools, county fairs and 4-H clubs to talk to young people who might be interested in enrolling in college and pursuing a food-animal veterinary career. (They talk to college undergraduates as well.)

Already, it appears their efforts are paying off. More and more students in the first– and second-year veterinary classes at IowaState have an interest in food-animal production medicine.

Having   grown up on a farm in northeast Nebraska, Friedrich already knows the rewards of working with cows and pigs. And, she loves the rural lifestyle as well. 

But, fewer and fewer people are growing up on farms these days. That’s why it’s important for everyone in agriculture, including dairy producers, to actively recruit young people and get them into the food-animal veterinary pipeline.

Always emphasize to young people the joys of being around dairy cows.