BEAR CREEK TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) _ Dr. Colleen Thorp examined a black-and-white cow struggling to give birth, finally deciding that the calf was too large and needed to be helped along.
Looping chains around the calf's front legs for a better grip, Thorp tugged and twisted until the newborn bull plopped onto the barn floor.
``He couldn't have lived much longer,'' said Thorp, who gently massaged the calf's slimy chest and tickled its nose. ``He's just exhausted. But he'll be fine.''
The calf survived because Thorp was in the right place at the right time. But in rural areas nationwide, the availability of veterinarians to treat large farm animals is increasingly uncertain.
As older practitioners retire, younger vets are showing less interest in large-animal care. The trend is ``alarming,'' according to Ray Stock, a lobbyist for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
Of 71,116 AVMA-member vets in the United States last year, only about 22 percent treated large farm animal such as cattle, pigs and sheep at least part-time. More than 45 percent of the organization's 32,338 members did so in 1986, the earliest year for which statistics are available.
An AVMA survey of graduates from the nation's veterinary schools last year found about 25 percent willing to devote at least part time to large animals _ down from 36 percent a decade earlier.
The trend is a problem for South Dakota, where ``we have five cows for every man, woman and child,'' says Dr. Sam Holland, the state veterinarian.
``What do you do when your ranch is 70 miles from town and there's only one vet in town, and during the calving season the vet may be called to go three different directions at the same time?'' Holland asked.
Thorp has practiced for 17 years since graduating from the Michigan State University vet school, and she tries to stay within 35 miles of her office. But she often gets requests from further away.
``People will say, `I don't know what to do; there are no vets here,''' she says, driving toward another family farm. ``I advise them to buy a trailer and truck and bring 'em up here. I feel for them, but there's only so much I can do.''
The shortfall reflects the decline of the traditional rural lifestyle. As the number of farms shrinks, so does the pool of veterinarians who grew up in the country around cows and pigs.
Thorp says few young people today will put up with the hassles of large animal medicine: long hours, middle-of-the-night emergencies and dirty and physically demanding labor.
She's also been kicked a few times, and suffered a cracked rib a couple of years ago in a run-in with a cow.
Large-animal practice also has a reputation for being less lucrative than small-animal care, even though an AVMA study in 2002 found the mean earnings for specialists in either field were about $84,000 a year. But vets with a mixed clientele, a common arrangement in rural areas, earned about $11,000 less.
Dr. Dennis Paull, who has a mixed practice in northern Michigan, said the disparity is one reason he may abandon large-animal care.
In the time it takes to drive 40 miles and treat a sick cow, he could handle several household pet cases. Besides, he says, the owner of a beloved dog is more likely to spend $600 to fix its blown-out knee than a farmer to invest in surgery for a hog destined for slaughter.
Congress in 2003 approved legislation to provide college loan forgiveness for newer veterinarians and students willing to work in underserved places and disciplines such as large-animal care. The typical vet school graduate leaves school $80,000 in debt.
But the program hasn't been funded _ and President Bush seeks no money for it in his 2006 budget.
A few states have debt relief programs, including Pennsylvania and Texas. South Dakota offers tuition assistance for residents who earn veterinary degrees at Iowa State University and return home to practice.
Driving home after her day of farm calls, Thorp had blood and manure stains on her overalls. She castrated four young bulls and dehorned another, changed a leg bandage on a skittish horse and performed rectal exams on dozens of cows.
``I guess it's like being a farmer,'' she says. ``It's either in your blood or it's not.''