A Roanoke County-based large-animal veterinarian plans to use a recently awarded federal grant to expand her business in an area that the government has identified as lacking adequate rural veterinary care.
Dr. Hannah Varnell, founder of Wellfarm Veterinary Consultants, will use the $125,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to buy new equipment and increase the availability of her practice’s services.
She also hopes to continue educating the public about how the health of production animals such as cows and pigs affects the food supply while emphasizing that veterinarians aren’t just for emergencies.
“There’s a lot of preventative medicine we can do to avoid those emergencies that are very cost-effective for the farmer,” Varnell said during a recent appointment at the Roanoke-Hollins Stockyard, where she was tending to 15 Holstein bull calves.
The USDA grant came after the agency this year identified nearly 240 areas around the country, including locations in Central and Southwest Virginia, with a shortage of rural veterinary care.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has also sounded the alarm, saying that more rural veterinary services are needed to “keep the nation’s livestock healthy and our food supply safe and secure, and protect public health.”
Rural, large-animal veterinary practice comes with its own challenges that Varnell said contribute to this shortage.
It generally pays less than small-animal practice — i.e., working with dogs and cats — and can be more dangerous, with a more difficult work-life balance that can lead to burnout, she said.
Because rural veterinary services are in short supply, farmers often are unaware of the services that do exist and turn to doctoring their own animals, she said.
Medical decisions are often made based on a food production animal’s value and potential profit, rather than an emotional attachment such as that which a person has for their family pet — a farmer who pays a few dollars for a chicken might not want to spend hundreds of dollars treating it, Varnell noted.
“There’s an imbalance between what it costs to run a veterinary practice versus what the client is willing to pay based on the production value of the animal,” she said.
Dr. Charlie Broaddus, state veterinarian in Virginia’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, noted that “farmers are wonderful to work with but some have different abilities to pay.”
“If a veterinarian is fortunate enough to practice in an area where the farmers generally are profitable and able to put the money back into the health care needs that they may have through the use of veterinary services, that works out well,” said Broaddus, who worked in large-animal private practice out of state before moving back home to Virginia about 15 years ago. “In other cases, that’s not always the situation.”
Broaddus said the state uses education and outreach to encourage students to consider careers in veterinary services, and he noted that the federal government has funding efforts such as the grant Varnell received and a competitive program to help veterinarians repay student loans. Still, service shortages in rural areas are likely to continue.
“I think we’ll be facing this challenge for the foreseeable future,” Broaddus said.
Before moving to the Roanoke area last year, Varnell earned an economics degree from Stanford University, graduated from North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2020, interned at Virginia Tech and spent a year in residency.
Wellfarm Veterinary Consultants is a mobile practice based in Roanoke County, just southeast of the city of Roanoke, and it primarily works within the Roanoke region, treating cattle, goats, pigs, sheep, backyard poultry and camelids such as llamas and alpacas.
Varnell said she has clients as far away as Winchester and West Virginia, and she’s put thousands of miles on her truck, a white stick-shift Toyota pickup she calls “Cowboy,” since she started her practice in July 2022.
“I will travel as far as people want me to come,” Varnell said.
The USDA awarded Wellfarm its grant in September, and the practice has used part of the money to purchase a portable trimming chute, which can be towed to a client’s farm and which allows a veterinarian to safely lift a cow’s leg to tend to its feet.
The money also has helped Varnell increase hours for veterinary technician Christina Ditmore, who plans to continue focusing on herd health in her own career.
“It’s great to be able to treat these resilient animals,” Ditmore said.
Varnell plans to buy analyzers to run blood tests on site, as well as equipment to boost artificial insemination services.
Varnell said she’d eventually like to add a haul-in facility so clients can bring their animals to her practice when an on-site call would be too expensive for them.
“To be able to buy these things without having this grant, it would take me 10 years,” she said.
During her Oct. 17 stockyard appointment, Varnell was vaccinating, castrating and dehorning Craig County farmer Ronald Niday’s 1- and 2-month-old calves, applying medicine to protect them from parasites and checking for respiratory illnesses and other concerns.
Niday said preventative veterinary care has improved his herd, which currently stands at 30 cattle total, and reduced the number of calves he loses.
“You want it to be a healthy animal down the road,” Niday said.
Broaddus, the state veterinarian, said that farmers purchasing preventative services also help ensure that a veterinarian stays in business and is around for more urgent problems.
“We have seen in cases where veterinarians aren’t utilized as much for the preventative herd health checks, it’s harder for them to establish a practice in the area, and then they’re less likely to be there for the emergencies that are needed,” he said.
The variable busyness of the job can lead to inconsistent cash flow. To help smooth that, Varnell offers a monthly herd health plan that provides annual visits and discounted rates on care as well as online prescription and telehealth services.
Despite the challenges, Varnell said she is drawn to large animal veterinary practice because she loves the work, she loves being outside and because of how the health of food animals is connected to food safety — a topic about which she hopes to continue spreading the word in the years to come.
“I think the consumer is probably unaware that farm animal veterinarians exist and what we do for the food supply,” she said.