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Steve Chiotakis: When a farmer in this country needs help caring for a sick cow, the nearest veterinarian could be several hours away. Large-animal vets are becoming an endangered species as more vet school grads choose the relatively lucrative option of treating dogs and cats. Now, some states are trying to lure more young vets back to the farm. Joel Rose reports.
Lester Griel: How many babies does a pig have at a time? Huh?
Joel Rose: In a classroom at Penn State University, a dozen high-school students get a lesson in animal reproduction from professor Lester Griel.
Griel: How many babies does a cow have at a time?
Griel: One I hope. I hate twins.
The students are spending a Saturday at a conference on veterinary medicine. Professor Robert Van Saun says most of these students are familiar only with dogs and cats.
Robert Van Saun: The greatest chance we have to get people think about large-animal practice is to start early.
And the stakes are high. There are roughly 500 rural counties in the U.S. that have lots of pigs, cows and horses, and no veterinarians to treat them. Most vet school grads choose to work with pets. They're drawn by the shorter hours, better working conditions and starting salaries up to 20 percent higher.
David Wolfgang: We're stretched thin, we haven't broken yet. But what happened is if we had a major outbreak, a major food safety issue, that's when crisis gets more critical.
David Wolfgang is the chairman of Project Pennsylvania. It's a campaign to recruit more large-animal veterinarians into the profession -- and keep them there.
Wolfgang: Professional school education is extraordinarily expensive. Many students graduate from professional school with between $110,000 to $160,000 of debt. So it's really challenging for young professionals.
Thirteen states offer some kind debt relief for students who agree to specialize in treating cows, horses and other farm animals. And some aspiring veterinarians say they're willing to trade higher wages for a more rewarding practice.
Penn State senior Maggie Zink says she wants to work with large animals:
Maggie Zink: I just loved the experience of it. Not being in an office all day long, seeing clients in and out of the door. You get to go out and be out in the country.
Zink's teachers have to hope she still feels that way when she graduates from veterinary school.
In State College, Penn., I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.