Counties across the U.S., including four in Oregon, have no veterinarians at all to tend food animals such as beef and dairy cattle.
JOHN DAY — Veterinarian Kasey Nash performs a pregnancy test, her gloved left arm inserted past the elbow into a heifer's nether regions.
"Sorry, mama," she murmurs while probing the cow's uterus. She glances at rancher Jan Bauer and whispers, "I hope she doesn't pee in my eyes."
A moment later, Nash delivers the good news: The Hereford-Simmental heifer is three months' pregnant.
"Her uterus feels like a boxing glove," says Nash, 32. "It's full of fluid. You can feel a little hard embryo."
The chore doesn't faze Nash, and neither do the long hours that come with her job as a "mixed animal" veterinarian — one who handles cows and horses as well as cats and dogs. Her workweeks often stretch past 60 hours. Every other week, she's on call around the clock. On top of that, she's the mother of a 4-year-old son, Cutter, who sometimes comes along on ranch calls, and a 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Nevada. She and her husband, Rowdy, live on the 400-cattle ranch he manages west of John Day.
It all makes her life part "Lonesome Dove," part "All Creatures Great and Small." When Nash reads James Herriot's Yorkshire tales of treating cattle and horses, she thinks, "Been there, done that."
That makes her unusual, though, and that's a problem.
Amid a general shortage of veterinarians — a U.S. Census survey predicts a deficit of 15,000 in 15 years — the nation and Oregon lack enough large-animal veterinarians to meet the demand for their services. Counties across the U.S., including four in Oregon, have no veterinarians at all to tend food animals such as beef and dairy cattle. Officials worry that the gap poses a threat to the nation's food supply and public health.
Decades ago, most veterinarians treated all types of animals. Now about three-quarters choose pet care for the higher pay and better working conditions. For new graduates, who often emerge with six-figure debts, the pay is reason enough.
But as Nash can attest, large-animal medicine is no place for the faint of heart.
In practice for six years, Nash co-owns the John Day River Veterinary Center near John Day. The job takes her to remote Grant County pastures at all hours. Sometimes it's so cold, the bucket of iodine water that holds her surgical instruments freezes. One calving season, a helpful rancher accidentally got too close with a heat lamp and set her hair on fire.
Her most memorable case involved a huge Charolais bull that got its head caught in a Volkswagen-size iron hay feeder. The bull stampeded away wearing the contraption like a giant's crown.
"You can imagine a 2,500-pound bull with a feeder on his head, doing Mach 9," Nash says. "He was on the fight; you couldn't get near him. He was dangerous to himself and others."
The exhausted bull finally paused long enough for Nash to inject him with a tranquilizer so the feeder could be removed with hacksaws.
"That was probably a four-hour deal — for what? Not a lot of money, I'll tell you," she says, laughing at the memory. "You never know what kind of rodeo you're going to be in. You are always trying to help somebody else's train wreck."
She has spent countless frigid hours well after midnight rescuing cows that ejected their uteruses while giving birth to 95-pound calves. To save the mother cow, she has to push the huge organ back where it belongs.
"It's like a big ol' thing of dough, and it's bloody," Nash says. "If you push it here, it bulges there."
She has also removed decomposing calves "bone by bone" from their mother's bodies. "I couldn't get the smell off for three or four days," she says. "You can't wash it off. You've got to wear it off."
Only about 17 percent of the nation's 93,000 veterinarians, including about 1,200 in Oregon, work with food-supply animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Of the 61,000 in private practice last year, 77 percent worked exclusively or mostly with pets, the AVMA says.
Of graduates in the class of 2007, 41 percent entered small-animal practices, 14 percent chose food animals and 4 percent horses, according to the AVMA. Most of the rest sought more education.
Because most vets choose pets, 50 counties that have thousands of food animals apiece have no large-animal veterinarian, says Glen Kolb, spokesman for the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association in Salem. Four are in Oregon: Curry, Gilliam, Lincoln and Sherman.
Grant County, where Nash practices, has just four large-animal veterinarians for some 40,000 animals. In vast Harney County, two doctors in Burns are the only large-animals veterinarians for more than 110,000 beef cattle, Kolb says. The ratio is worse in Morrow and Malheur counties, according to AVMA and U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
The AVMA has sounded alarms, saying the shortage could leave Americans vulnerable to everything from food-borne illness to "agriterrorism." Last month, the organization announced a debt-relief program for students who choose food-animal care.
That's important because U.S. veterinary students graduate with an average debt of $120,000, according to the AVMA. Dr. Cyril Clark, dean of Oregon State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, says his school's grads face a debt load of $100,000 to $120,000. Kolb puts the upper end closer to $140,000.
At the same time, rural vets earn less. Clark says an OSU grad can expect to start at nearly $65,000 at a small-animal practice — $10,000 more than if they go into rural mixed-animal medicine. At the national level, the AVMA reported in 2007, a vet specializing in pets earned a median of $97,000, compared with $91,000 for a mixed-animal veterinarian. And those numbers don't account for differences in rates between metro and sparsely settled rural areas, says AVMA spokesman David Kirkpatrick.
It doesn't help that few of today's veterinary students grew up in rural settings with day-to-day exposure to livestock, Kirkpatrick says, and that vets' spouses usually prefer urban job markets.
Douglas County veterinarian Joe Snyder, 61, says most students discover before graduation that being a rural mixed-animal vet means low pay and brutal hours. Longtime rural veterinarians tend to keep rates low to accommodate clients pinched by tight ranch economics, he says.
"We have trained all the people in our areas to expect very inexpensive veterinary care," Snyder says.
Nash acknowledges that the recession has cut into her business. Some Grant County ranchers are going without veterinary services they need, she says, unable to afford even the low going rates.
Another big issue is lack of space for students. The number of accredited veterinary colleges is about the same as it was in 1983, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2010-11, with only about one in three applicants admitted in 2007.
Kirkpatrick says the nation's 28 accredited veterinary colleges will turn out 2,600 graduates this year — a number that could be far higher. Federal funding for the colleges, he says, hasn't increased in about 30 years, preventing construction.
"There is no lack of applicants for veterinary school," he says. "It points to the fact that our veterinary schools have not been able to expand at a decent enough clip to accommodate more students."
OSU's veterinary college will graduate 48 students this year, Clark says, but enrolled 56 in fall.
Dr. Christopher Mcilmoil, 40, has been on both sides of the pet/livestock fence.
He spent five years as a large-animal vet in Union County. Working for a clinic in La Grande, he was on call around the clock half of each month. He remembers one weekend when he managed to squeeze in only five minutes with his family, and another time when he was called away in the middle of giving a talk to a church group. He missed two dance recitals a year apart by his daughter, Hunter, 7.
"My wife told everybody as a joke that she was a single mother because I wasn't there," he says.
So 18 months ago, he switched his specialty from large animals to dogs, cats and the occasional rabbit or gerbil, and moved his family to Wilsonville. His income doubled and he works half the hours, he says.
"Now if the phone rings after 6 p.m., it is my own family," he says.
Nash agrees that it's about more than a job.
"It's a lifestyle choice," she says. "It's definitely not for everybody — if you weren't raised to be a hard worker."
Nash decided to become a veterinarian at age 5 while growing up in Elgin. She and her husband were high school sweethearts and wed when she was 18. Rowdy Nash, 33, manages the Widow's Creek Ranch and competes in horseback "suicide races." Their son was the youngest competitor at a recent "mutton-busting" contest in which tots ride sheep as if they were rodeo bulls.
On a recent Monday morning, Nash drove 30 miles to Fox Valley, north of John Day, to have a look at 130 beef steers waiting to be trucked to Nevada. After checking for runny noses, droopy ears and other symptoms of infectious disease, she wrote the owner a health certificate allowing the cattle to travel.
Back at the clinic, she did semen and trichomonas tests on a couple of bulls, neutered a dog and prepared a heifer to be injected for brucellosis, a cow disease. When the heifer refused to move into a squeeze chute that holds animals still, the 5-foot-6, 130-pound Nash scrambled to the summit of a steel fence and got behind the cow.
"C'mon, girlfriend!" she urged. "C'mon, heifer!"
She finished her workday with a snack of homemade muffins smeared with fresh butter, gifts from a couple who brought their 4-year-old dairy cow to her that afternoon. Nash performed a hormone synchronization on the cow to prepare it for artificial insemination.
The cow is a family treasure, producing 14 gallons of creamy milk per day, much of which the couple sells to neighbors, Nash says. They presented her with a Smucker's jar brimming with thick cream in addition to the muffins and 3 pounds of butter.
This, Nash says, is the sort of homespun life she wants for her children.
"I want my kids to wake up in the morning to hear the cows mooing," she says.
Information from: The Oregonian, http:www.oregonlive.com