EDINBURG, N.D. - It's not uncommon for Dr. Charlotte Klose to drive 80 miles to see her patients.

"We cover a huge area," she said. "I travel all the way to west of Langdon, N.D. I go south of Grand Forks to the Thompson, N.D., area."

The Edinburg doctor travels all over eastern North Dakota making house calls, or rather barn calls. Klose is among a rare breed in rural America: large animal veterinarians. Vets play a key role in helping ranchers succeed. That often means long hours and being accessible at night, on weekends and during holidays.

"We have to be available 24/7," said Klose, who also treats small animals.

The recent death of Dr. Gerard Dahl, a veterinarian who ran Park River Vet Clinic, left a large hole in the livestock community. The hope is someone will take over the clinic for him, said Dr. Jeanette Bjornstad, a Walsh County vet and friend of Dahl.

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"To have someone die all of the sudden, that has to be a huge concern for the clients," said Dr. John Boyce, executive secretary for the North Dakota Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.

Aside from two large animal clinics in Park River, including Dahl's practice, the closest one to Edinburg, Klose said, is in Cooperstown, N.D., about 85 miles south of Edinburg or 80 miles southwest of Grand Forks. Without him, ranchers have turned to the few vets like Klose in the area.

The phone has been ringing constantly, she said, and this time of year is full of calls as ranchers do herd work.

"It's that time of year we are very busy doing work with large animals," she said as the phone rang in the background. "It's cold and hard work."

But despite the long hours and hard, dirty work, Klose said she wouldn't change her career if she had the chance.

"I absolutely love working with the people," she said. "It never gets boring."

Rural rarity

North Dakota has 521 licensed veterinarians, about 270 who live in the state, Boyce said. That number hasn't changed much in the last 10 years, he added.

"The new licensees have pretty much replaced those who move away, die or otherwise do not renew their license," he said.

The University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, the closest to Grand Forks, has 104 openings each year, and between 800 and 900 people apply, said Laura Molgaard, academic and student affairs associate dean for the college.

"It's still very competitive," she said.

The rarity of large animal vets in rural areas is an issue ranchers have faced for years, she said. In one snapshot that she said was representative of other years, 60 percent of graduates from the college go into small animal care. About 14 percent go into food animal care - cattle, hogs, sheep and other animals used for consumption.

About 11 percent of grads went to rural areas outside of Minnesota while 18 percent stayed in rural Minnesota, she said. There are more small animal jobs than large animal openings, and fewer people live in rural areas, Molgaard said.

Klose said the livestock industry is still strong in North Dakota.

Economic decision

Treating large animals compared with small animals costs more and can have more of an economic impact on a rancher's bottom line, said Dr. Susan Keller, the North Dakota state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture. Ranchers need to decide if an animal is sick enough to justify a long trip to see a vet, she said.

"It's a different decision-making process to some extent because of what it costs to raise cattle," she said. "It's not that people don't care about their animals, but there is more of an economic decision whenever you have a lot of cattle to take care of."

States and the federal government have tried to encourage vets to come to rural areas with loan repayment programs. North Dakota selects at least three vets each year who will receive up to $80,000 if they work in the state, though a preference is placed on doctors who move to rural areas, said Dr. Beth Carlson, deputy state veterinarian for the ag department. Minnesota has a similar program for vets who go to rural areas whose work involves at least 50 percent with the care of food animals, Molgaard said.

"Veterinarians serve some pretty critical roles in the economic vibrancy or vibrancy of those areas by supporting that agriculture industry," Molgaard said, adding vets are the front lines for food safety and fighting against disease outbreaks. "Those outbreaks can devastate livestock industries, but they can also endanger the lives of livestock and people."