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Will Shelby examines a fecal sample in an OSU-CVM lab. As a student at OSU-CVM, Shelby learns the fundamentals of identifying potential illnesses in different species. (Photo by Maddie Cox)

Calling Rural Veterinarians

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Media Contact: Jami Mattox | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-8061 |

The sun rises over rural Oklahoma. Tools neatly line the veterinary box, prepared to assist in a day of unknowns. The phone rings alongside the morning cup of coffee and a rural veterinarian starts the day.

Rural veterinarians are an enormous asset to a community, said Dr. Rosslyn Biggs, director of continuing education for the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine and beef cattle specialist for OSU Extension.

Veterinarians are critical in helping with not only animal health but also food safety, public health, education and military services, said Biggs, who is an alumna of the Ferguson College of Agriculture and OSU-CVM.

“Agriculture is one of the top industries in Oklahoma,” Biggs said. “It is at the heart of all things good in Oklahoma. Rural communities are focused largely on agriculture, especially animal agriculture.”

A recent shortage of rural veterinarians has brought challenges to rural Oklahoma, Biggs said. However, rather than being discouraged, State of Oklahoma officials, the veterinary community, and OSU administrators and faculty are committed to overcome these challenges in the most effective manner, Biggs said.

Dr. Rod Hall, Oklahoma state veterinarian and OSU-CVM alumnus, said he attributes the state’s veterinarian shortage to the salary-to-student debt ratio, the need for emergency calls, the rural lifestyle, the misconception of fair pay for veterinarian services, and the hard work that goes into being a rural veterinarian.

“We have to figure out how to help students get into veterinary school and how to help them be successful after graduation," Hall said.

In 2021, 718 students applied to OSU’s veterinary medicine program, and 106 were accepted. Of these applicants, 171 Oklahoma residents competed for the 58 spots reserved for in-state students. The remainder competed for the 48 out-of-state spots.

OSU-CVM has implemented programs to allow veterinary medicine students the ability to gain hands-on experience as well as networking and job opportunities with an emphasis in fostering sustainable veterinary practices, Biggs said.

“OSU’s Integrated Beef Cattle Program is a cross-disciplinary partnership across veterinary medicine, animal science, agricultural economics and extension,” Biggs said. “This program addresses the current challenges in veterinary medicine and puts 20 practicing veterinarians learning alongside 20 veterinary students to help them develop various skills.”

Will Shelby, 2021 OSU animal science alumnus and first-year OSU veterinary medicine student, has taken advantage of the scholarships and programs offered through the OSU-CVM. Shelby said he is thankful for the many opportunities he has received and looks forward to his future career.

Dr. Bob McCraw, mixed animal veterinarian and OSU-CVM alumnus, said the student-debt crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing recent veterinary medicine graduates. However, veterinary medicine has taken initiative in combating this issue nationally, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program will pay up to $25,000 each year toward education loans to eligible veterinarians, according to the USDA. The program requires recipients to work at least three years in shortage zones designated by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

This year, up to seven Oklahoma veterinarians could be nominated for the loan repayment program, Hall said.

Oklahoma is one of the states with the greatest number of nominations for the program, he said, and officials encourage a multitude of different veterinary practices to apply for this program. Hall said he also hopes to see older practices increase pay and resources for graduates.

“The people in rural Oklahoma who are being successful at hiring veterinary associates are beginning to understand that they’re going to have to pay more and give some benefits to graduates,” Hall said.

One recent OSU veterinary medicine alumnus has already made strides toward a debt-free veterinary medicine career, Biggs said.

“An alumnus in our program has been out for two years with a six-figure debt and has already paid that back,” Biggs said.

“There is opportunity out there. Together through education, both from the undergraduate level and the College of Veterinary Medicine, OSU turns out practice-ready veterinarians. We support them all the way through.”

Supporting veterinarians and aspiring veterinarians is a task that relies on community support, Biggs said. Rural Oklahoma has communities with students who have the potential to be tremendous assets to veterinary medicine, Biggs said.

“If I ask a grade-school class, ‘How many of you would be interested in being a veterinarian?’ there’s always a lot of hands,” Biggs said. “I want each student who raises a hand to know that they can.”

In Oklahoma, multiple families have a long line of veterinarians, Biggs said. Having a mother who was a veterinarian allowed Biggs to see the number of opportunities veterinary medicine can offer as did being surrounded by positive advocates for veterinary medicine, she added.

Shelby also had strong veterinary role models throughout his life, he said, including his father, Dr. Troy Shelby. Will Shelby found his passion for veterinary medicine early in his life, he said.

Will Shelby, who grew up in Madill, Oklahoma, said veterinarians make a difference through their work with rural communities and as advocates for the agricultural industry.

“I believe that to cattle producers, especially in a rural area, having a good veterinarian they can plan with and come together with is really vital to their successes, especially since cattle producers work on such tight margins,” Will Shelby said. “Anything veterinarians can do to increase efficiency or decrease death loss helps bring success to their businesses.”

The relationship between veterinarians and their clients is similar to a partnership, Biggs said. Veterinarians operate with the goal of saving their clients money, she said.

Supporting rural veterinarians sets off a chain reaction of helping a long list of small businesses, she added.

“As a rural veterinarian, you automatically are considered an upstanding citizen,” Hall said. “People value your expert opinion. You will have opportunities to be involved in civic organizations.”

Serving the rural community as a veterinarian can be a privilege, Will Shelby said. However, drawing a line after business hours is a difficult task for rural vets, he added.

Current veterinarians and aspiring veterinarians must know their boundaries and when to say no, McCraw said. Often, saying no is difficult but necessary when prioritizing your work-life balance, he added.

“You can really make a difference as a veterinarian,” Will Shelby said. “Seeing the difference you make in rural communities and building those connections is an awesome thing to do every day.”

Story By: Maddie Cox | Cowboy Journal

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