GORHAM (AP) – The low price of milk isn’t the only thing plaguing dairy farmers these days. They are also dealing with a statewide shortage of bovine veterinarians – animal doctors who treat cows.

The shortage represents another burden for the dairy industry, which has been struggling for years to survive low milk prices and development pressure. Mainers are giving up farms that have been in their families for generations.

, often choosing to sell their land to suburban developers.

The decline in farms means cow veterinarians have fewer clients, causing many to quit the dairy-cow business, which is known for its hard work, unpredictable hours and sometimes dangerous patients.

Becki Benson, a dairy farmer in Gorham, said the shortage is one more strike against the dairy industry.

“You’ll see people who are on the edge just say forget it,” said Benson. “It’s one more pressure in a highly pressurized business.”

Rebecca Myers, whose practice is in Turner and serves dairy farms from Wilton to Buxton, sent a letter to her 200 clients earlier this year letting them know she would no longer provide 24-hour, seven-day emergency services. At the same time, another vet in her practice moved to Canada, leaving her as the only cow specialist in the region.

Myers said she’s called out for four or five dairy-cow emergencies a week. Roughly half come after hours, and Myers, who has a young son, has told her clients that she won’t be available on an on-call basis.

“I never considered this as an option, to be the only one left and trying to have my own life,” said Myers. “Truly, there are more cows that are going to end up as hamburger in some freezers because of this.”

The decline in Maine dairy farms – from 665 in 1989 to 417 at the end of 2002 – means there are fewer dairies to support that infrastructure.

“Bovine practitioners have to travel farther and farther to service clients,” said Don Hoenig, a state veterinarian. “It’s just a slow spiral that doesn’t seem to have any type of solution.”

The decline also affects the supply of cow veterinarians in another, less-obvious way.

Traditionally, veterinarians who work on farm animals grew up on farms themselves and wanted to serve the types of communities they grew up in. Myers grew up on a Minnesota farm, went to Cornell and migrated to Maine to practice.

“Just look at the drop in working farms nationwide,” said Myers. “There’s so few kids who come from a working farm background.”

AP-ES-08-04-03 0216EDT



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