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USDA hopes to address veterinarian shortages

WILLMAR -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture is implementing a new program that it hopes will address veterinary shortages throughout rural America by repaying the student loans of qualified veterinarians in return for their services in areas suffering from a lack of veterinarians.

USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture will administer the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, which was established by the National Veterinary Medical Service Act of 2003.

The National Institute for Food and Agriculture is currently asking state and federal animal health officials to identify specific areas or regions that they consider to be in a veterinary shortage situation. Later, a panel of federal and state animal health experts will review all submitted recommendations and determine which areas or regions should be officially designated for the program.

The public will be able to review, in either a list or map form, the designated veterinary shortage areas, including information regarding the nature of the shortage.

The institute expects to begin accepting applications from veterinarians by April 30.

In return for committing three years of veterinary services in a designated veterinary shortage area, the institute may repay up to $25,000 of student loan debt per year.

Loan repayments are limited to payments of principal and interest on government and commercial loans received for attending an accredited college of veterinary medicine, resulting in a degree of doctor of veterinary medicine or the equivalent.

Veterinarians play a critical role in maintaining our nation's food safety and food security infrastructure, while also enhancing the health and well-being of both animals and humans.

A leading cause for the shortage of veterinarians is the heavy cost of four years of professional veterinary medical training, which can average between $130,000 and $140,000.

USDA issues final rule on organic access to pasture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released a final rule that will amend the National Organic Program regarding the use of pasture in raising organic ruminants.

The final rule should assure consumers that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on a pasture-based system in which animals are actively grazing pasture during the grazing season. In addition, the final rule should provide greater assurance that all producers are being held to the same standards.

The release of the final rule signifies the culmination of a process that was initiated in 2005. The proposed rule, published on Oct. 28, 2008, received more than 26,000 comments from producers, retailers, handlers, consumers and various industry groups.

The main components of the final rule include the following:

- Animals must graze pasture at least 120 days per year during the grazing season.

- Animals must obtain a minimum of 30 percent dry matter intake from grazing pasture during the grazing season.

- Producers must have a pasture management plan and manage their pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements for the grazing animals.

- Livestock are exempt from the 30 percent dry matter intake requirement during the finish feeding period, not to exceed 120 days. However, livestock must have access to pasture during the finishing phase.

The final rule becomes effective June 17. Operations which are already certified organic will have one year to implement the new provisions. Operations which obtain organic certification after the effective date will be expected to demonstrate full compliance.

Although this is a final rule, comments on the exceptions for finish feeding of ruminant slaughter stock may be submitted before April 19. The 60-day comment period pertains to the finish feeding provisions only.

The specific questions to consider and instructions for submitting comments are available at

Net farm income expected to increase in 2010

In a recent report, USDA's Economic Research Service was forecasting that net farm income will total $63 billion in 2010, up $6.7 billion or 11.8 percent from 2009.

The 2010 income forecast is $1.4 billion below the previous 10-year average of $64.5 billion. However, the $63 billion forecast would be the fifth largest on record.

In 2010, the economic conditions for livestock producers are expected to improve, while conditions for crop producers are expected to deteriorate slightly or stabilize.

Total farm expenses in 2010 are not expected to change significantly from 2009.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.