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Lora Bledsoe is a large animal veterinarian in a rural area in northeastern Colorado. Bledsoe has started a mobile practice to better serve large animal and food animal clients and is helping to combat the large animal practitioner shortage. (Rachel Spencer/Special to Agweek)

In places without enough rural veterinary care, these vets have found solutions

Lora Bledsoe is a large animal practitioner in eastern Colorado. After several years in two clinics, Bledsoe set off on her own in a mobile practice, in part, to help relieve the extreme shortage of large animal practitioners in rural areas.

Bledsoe, an Illinois native, attended Colorado State University and says she fell in love with the state. When she met her now-husband, a rancher in eastern Colorado, she made Colorado her home.

Cattle were always her calling even though her experience at her first two clinics following graduation — one a busy, seven veterinarian mixed practice, and the other a smaller mixed practice — relied heavily on small animal clients.

"When the veterinarian heard I was marrying someone local, she offered me a job in her practice," she says. "I was there about four years before I decided to go out on my own in a mobile practice."

Bledsoe says she enjoyed the mixed practice, but the scheduled appointments with small animal clients often made it difficult to be available for on-ranch calls. Being mobile allows Bledsoe the ability to work on the family ranch between clients in addition to creating a part time position in her small community for a staff member to offer office help and to even make the occasional call with Bledsoe.

"A lot of the vets out here are mixed animal practices, and they're in a brick and mortar building though they do go out on farm calls," Bledsoe says. "There are high operating costs to have staff, a building and keeping the lights on."

Bledsoe says the costs often force practitioners to focus on small animals, which tend to be more lucrative.

"When you focus on the small animals, you're not always available when a producer calls you and has an emergency or needs to get in for a last-minute health certificate," she says. "I found it frustrating that I was pushing back the ranchers."

Bledsoe knew her passion was in large animal and food animal practice, and the mobile practice allows her to truly serve her producer clients while living on the family ranch in a rural, small community.

In northwest Kansas, Dr. Russ Baxley has also recently launched a mobile practice. He opened his mobile practice by way of Afghanistan, a slightly less traditional route than many practitioners.

Baxley served in the Army overseas treating military service dogs. Later he took State Department contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan that helped him tackle the loans he was saddled with after graduating from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University.

Opening his mobile practice, Onion Creek Veterinary in Piqua, Kan., was a solution to avoid the costs associated with the day-to-day operations of a brick and mortar practice while serving a community in which he says clients were once forced to leave the county to seek veterinary care.

"I started working out of my truck," he says. "I can do most things. I can even do some surgeries like cat neuters. I can do almost anything out of my truck."

With his new-found flexibility, Baxley has spent his day on the road. With the help of his technician, he assisted the sheriff's department in an investigation by performing necropsies on cattle, delivered cat medication to a business owner in town who called him when she spotted his pickup driving by, and answered an emergency call from a cattle producer. That flexibility, he says, makes him able to truly be a client's veterinarian — an added value to his services in an underserved area.

Ashley Stokes, the assistant vice president of engagement and deputy director of extension at Colorado State University, maintains that the solution to the veterinarian shortage is a partnership between veterinary colleges, communities, practitioners and producers. Stokes has previously operated a mobile practice and says veterinary students are able to experience that style of practice in school. It is, she says, one of the viable solutions to the nationwide problem of underserved rural areas.

Stokes was instrumental in the passage of a bill in Colorado that may be an important part of what she calls a multifaceted solution.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program into law last summer. The program, Stokes says, will help rural communities secure practitioners to serve residents. Don Brown, state Commissioner of Agriculture and a Yuma County, Colo., farmer, says he hopes the "loan repayment program will provide additional opportunities for students to ease the burden of debt and move forward with assisting our agricultural producers with the veterinary needs."

The program allows graduates of accredited veterinary medicine schools to apply for up to $70,000 in student loan debt forgiveness. Applicants must live in the state and agree to practice veterinary medicine in a rural area of the state that is experiencing a shortage of veterinarians as designated by the council for participation in the program.

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