Veterinary medicine students could study in South Dakota for two years under new program

Shannon Marvel

A new program aims to decrease tuition costs to the state's veterinary medical students and allow them to stay closer to home for their first two years of veterinary education.

It's a partnership between South Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.

Students accepted into the rural veterinary program would complete their first two years of graduate courses in SDSU's department of veterinary and biomedical services before heading to the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

Jane Christopher-Hennings, SDSU director, department head and professor of veterinary medicine, said there are bills being drafted at the this year's legislative session that would redirect funding from undergraduate programs. According to information provided by Christopher-Hennings, SDSU has requested $275,000 annually for a three-year period beginning in 2020 to cover salaries.

The program will cover both small- and large-animal specialties. It aims to provide a focus for veterinary students that reflects needs in their home areas, specifically for large-animal veterinarians, according to the document.

"There are less veterinary students that aregoing into livestock large-animal specialties, whether they're from South Dakota or out of state," she said.

"We're in a very good niche to train those students, because we're a fairly livestock-dense area. We also have food facilities for working with animal production," Christopher-Hennings said.

She noted that the program could appeal to students with backgrounds in FFA or 4-H.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 1,255 of the 117,735 veterinarians in the nation were in exclusive large-animal practices in 2017. Only 3,223 veterinarians worked in practices that year that predominantly cared for large animals.

Growing need

Chanda Nilsson, a veterinarian at Groton Veterinary Clinic, said there's definitely a need and a growing demand for large-animal veterinarians in the area.

"I don't do a ton of large animal anymore, but our practice deals a lot with large animal," Nilsson said.

"I think there's a need out there for it. It's hard to bring people back to this area to practice large animals especially. The demand is pretty large with sale barns," she said.

She added that it's harder work to provide medical care to large animals, compared to smaller animals.

Megan Ernst, a veterinarian at New Horizon Veterinary Service in Glenham, said any program that could keep more veterinary students in the state would help.

"We really do have a shortage here in South Dakota," she said. "Especially in this area there is no competition. All the vet clinics have more than we can handle. It is not uncommon for us and the surrounding clinics to tell people in need of veterinary service to call another clinic (because) we just can't fit you in," she said.

Ernst said the trick is keeping veterinarians working in the area.

"The hard part is a lot of times people are from different areas and they only want to stay a while because they're not originally from here," she said.

Her husband, Don Ernst, is also a veterinarian. The pair keeps busy throughout most of the year with both large- and small-animal work, MeganErnst said. She said their only slow times are during August and September.

"There's just a lot of cows out here," Ernst said.

For each person in South Dakota, there are 4.6 head of cattle, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. That is the largest ratio in the nation.

More difficulties

Robin O’Neill, a veterinarian at Animal Care Clinic in Aberdeen, said small-animal veterinarians are also difficult to recruit.

"I just do small animal, but I bough this practice in 2015 and have been looking ever since for an associate," O'Neill said.

A 1994 graduate of Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine, she said only a small number of students are accepted into veterinary medical school each year.

O'Neill surmised that because veterinarians are in such high demand throughout the nation, new graduates have their pick of where they want to work.

The proposed program would allow SDSU to enroll 20 to 22 veterinary students each year.

The University of Minnesota admits 105 veterinary students per year and has enough classroom space to accommodate third-year arrivals from SDSU.

To ensure there's enough room for students during clinical training, Minnesota plans to cut the number of students it accepts from Ross University and St. George's University, which are both in the Caribbean.

"They can only take so many students in some of these four-year programs because they have a lot of sophisticated programs in their last two years. There are a lot of clinical skills classes," Christopher-Hennings said.

"Providing the infrastructure and clinical skill classes during the last two years of veterinary medical school isn't financially feasible for SDSU, but providing the classes taken during the first two years is an affordable option," she said.