For the fifth year in a row, Florida received funding from the USDA to promote better access to veterinary treatment in rural areas.
But this is the first year the money went to a veterinarian serving North Central Florida.
Danielle Tack, a program coordinator in the National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the USDA, manages its Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The program awards up to $75,000 towards school loan repayments for vets who agree to spend three years practicing in underserved areas.
“There are probably some areas that have more vets than they need and others where there’s none, and there’s really a desperate need,” Tack said.
To protect confidentiality, the association doesn’t release the names of recipients. The veterinarian chosen in Florida this year will be expected to work in a service area that includes portions of Alachua, Columbia, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Suwannee, Hamilton, Bradford, Union and northern Marion counties.
Currently, only 11 veterinarians in the region spend at least 30 percent of their time treating cattle and small livestock, according to the program application form.
However, the area has approximately 354,000 cattle and is home to 50 large dairy farms. According to the Florida Dairy Farmers, Lafayette County alone is home to 21 dairy farms, more than any other county in the state. Tack said previous awards have gone to Okeechobee County, which is listed as a close second with 19 farms.
The awards totaled $4.5 million in 2015 and were given to 49 recipients in 26 states. The awards have been given out since 2010 and are given based on need in each region, she said.
A report released by the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates the average veterinary educational debt at around $135,000. The debt has almost doubled since the early 2000s.
The loan repayment program seeks to provide incentives for vets by repaying some of that debt and expanding veterinary treatment in the areas that need it most.
Around World War II, approximately 50 percent of veterinarians worked with livestock, but today, only 5 to 8 percent of graduating veterinarians are going into the food-animal field, Tack said. While part of that can be explained by changes in agriculture as people move closer to cities, the demand for services in rural areas hasn’t declined at the same rate.
Gainesville-based veterinarian Jennifer Frank uses a mobile clinic to treat horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. She mostly treats animals in Starke, Keystone Heights, Lake City and Ocala.
While Frank doesn’t have any student loans, she sees the loan repayment program as a good way to make sure the state’s underserved areas have access to veterinary treatment.
She said Gainesville has plenty of options for veterinarians, but rural areas around Live Oak, Lake City and the regions west of Jacksonville don’t have the same access.
“There’s a big gap there for horses and cows,” she said. “People have a hard time getting vets in those areas.”
Large-animal vets perform not just regular medical treatment but after-hours emergency care. Owners of dogs and cats wouldn’t call their regular veterinarians at night, but there are no separate after-hours clinic for large animals. Frank has reduced her night and weekend work by joining other local veterinarians to share after-hours duties.
“We all work really well together.” she said of the partnership. “It’s nice because we can even talk over cases with each other.”
Dairy cattle in particular often need high levels of veterinary attention, said Howard Kurtz Jr., better known as “Bubba,” who owned Kurtz and Sons Dairy for 25 years before he closed the business this spring.
The most common dairy cattle in Florida are Holstein cows, a black and white spotted breed. Though they produce a lot of milk, the breed is prone to leg problems and reproductive issues, Kurtz said.
Though he was able minimize his veterinary needs through a mix of diet and careful breeding, not all large dairies have that option. Most of the milk in Florida is produced for drinking rather than as an ingredient in cheese or yogurt. The health of the dairy industry is very important to Florida agriculture.
“We humans have bred cattle to produce more milk and more milk and more milk,” Kurtz said. “It’s gotten so that when a cow, when she has her calf, you almost cannot get enough feed in her to keep up with the metabolic demands on her body for milk production, and that’s one of the hardest things for dairy farmers to do.”