What would you do without your local veterinarian? More and more farmers and ranchers are finding out as many current professionals who handle large animals are retiring and new replacements are harder to find.

The percentage of veterinarians pursuing careers in food-animal practice has been in steady decline since the end of World War II, when roughly half of the members of the American Veterinary Medical Association were engaged in food animal practices. Today, only 5 to 8 percent of graduating veterinarians join private practices with an emphasis on food animals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Let's face it, it's not an easy job. Across rural America, vets often travel long distances and work odd hours under sometimes very challenging conditions. However, one of the biggest parts of the problem is the cost associated with becoming a vet, with some students racking up six figures in student debt - and that's after they pay for their undergraduate degree. The average cost of four years of veterinary school ranges from about $150,000 to over $300,000 at the 30 accredited colleges in the U.S.

Congress first tried to address the vet shortage and debt problems in 2003 when the National Veterinary Medical Service Act became law, launching USDA's Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. Building on subsequent enhancements, the 2014 farm bill added an important new companion program, the Veterinary Services Grant Program, which focuses on education and rural practice enhancement. Together, the two NIFA programs targeting rural veterinary practice shortages pump about $5.7 million into vet-student loan repayments and $2.4 million into veterinary grants every year.

Still, more help is needed. NIFA reports that, "From FY 2010 through FY 2017, NIFA received 1,349 applications from which 447 VMLRP (loan repayment) awards were offered." This means the program's insufficient funding left more than 900 veterinarians without hoped-for USDA support to carry out their plans to either open new rural practices serving livestock producers or expand their existing practices because they've been able to pay off part of their educational loans.

NIFA's five-year Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program report notes that "sufficient data are not yet available to accurately assess the long-term impact of the VMLRP." But it adds that some awardees have "indicated that they have bought or plan to buy into a local veterinary practice - a significant career decision made financially possible, in part, through debt repayment support."

Adele Turzillo, NIFA's Animal Systems Division director, tells Agri-Pulse that it's also too early to assess whether the new grant program, which awarded its first grants in 2016, has significantly impacted the shortage situation. But based on both enthusiastic feedback from awardees and a five-year assessment of the VMLRP program, this research scientist concludes that "we believe that through these sister programs, we are addressing these shortages."

Turzillo adds that there is a national need to address the shortage. Supporting new rural veterinary practices helps not only rural vets and animal health "but also has impacts on the safety of the food that is derived from food animals," including beef, dairy products, pork and poultry, she says.

To further attract more veterinarians to open or expand food-animal veterinary practices in shortage areas, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced his bipartisan Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act, S. 487, last year with 12 Republican and 12 Democratic co-sponsors, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. The bill and its bipartisan House version, H.R. 1268, sponsored by Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., along with 15 Republican and 22 Democratic co-sponsors, would eliminate the current IRS withholding tax on NIFA loan repayment awards to veterinarians who agree to work in shortage areas for at least three years. The result: awardees would get the full benefit of NIFA payments, without any deduction for taxes.

Calling on Congress to pass the legislation, American Veterinary Medical Association President Dr. Michael Topper explains that "veterinarians are the best line of defense against animal diseases that can endanger humans, destroy livestock herds and hurt rural economies." He warns that "when communities have inadequate access to veterinary care, the consequences can be widespread. It's urgent that Congress takes action to alleviate veterinary shortages across the country."

The American Farm Bureau Federation also supports the loan repayment program fix. "Expansion of the VMLRP will not only help to improve the health of farm animals, but will contribute to the safety of our food supply," AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in an April 26 letter to Congress, explaining that "many farmers and ranchers operate in areas that lack adequate veterinary services for their livestock."