Colorado agriculture consistently ranks as one of the state’s top three leading industries, but there is an acute shortage of large-animal veterinarians in rural communities. Photo: William A. Cotton/CSU Photography
Drs. Catherine “Callie” Kuntz and Kayle Austin have been selected as the first recipients of the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program, which was established by Colorado law in 2017. Through this unique program, graduates of veterinary schools are eligible for up to $70,000 of student loan repayment over four years while working in areas of the state experiencing a shortage of veterinarian services.
This program recognizes the burden many young veterinarians face after graduation: The average debt for 2016 veterinary school graduates across the country was more than $167,000. It also addresses the need for professional services for large and small animals in rural communities.
Kuntz and Austin were selected from a handful of applicants by a council that oversees the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program. Council members are appointed by the governor, and supported by Colorado State University administrative staff.
Dr. Mark Stetter, a wildlife veterinarian and dean of the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, expressed his sincere congratulations to the award recipients. He also acknowledged the hard work by a group of bipartisan legislators who care about agriculture in Colorado that created the program.
“We are indebted to Rep. Joann Ginal, Rep. Jeni Arndt and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg who worked diligently to establish the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program,” said Stetter.
Ginal is a Democrat from Fort Collins who will be moving to the state Senate in January. Arndt is also a Democrat from Fort Collins. Sonnenberg is a Republican from Northeastern Colorado.
Kayle Austin, DVM
Austin is a livestock veterinarian based in LaSalle, Colorado, who graduated from CSU’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program in 2017. She grew up in Two Buttes, Colorado (pop. 32), a place where “production agriculture is the way of life.”
Her passion for animals and agriculture was instilled at an early age on her family’s 300-head commercial beef cow operation, where she rode horses and raised flocks of sheep, goats and poultry to show at Future Farmers of America and 4H events.
Austin completed an undergraduate degree, received two master’s degrees and finished veterinary school while working full-time in the livestock industry.
After graduating from CSU, Austin launched a mobile veterinary service and provides medical care for animals at her own facility in Eastern Colorado. She serves the dairy and beef industries while also providing care for sheep and goats, camelids (including llamas and alpacas), horses and small animals for rural clients.
Austin said being one of the first recipients of this new program is “exciting.”
“It’s a huge help and a big relief,” she added. “Currently, I owe about $170,000 in student loans and am paying as much in student loans as I do for a mortgage each month.”
Austin recently purchased an ultrasound machine, which she uses daily in her practice. The price tag on it was $15,000.
“The Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program helps because it will free up some of my payments,” she said. “I’d like to get additional imaging equipment and, within the next three to five years, hopefully upgrade things like my truck. When I apply for loans, I’ll be able to break down my debt to qualify for them. It’s very helpful in the long term and immediately.”
Callie Kuntz, DVM
Kuntz grew up in San Antonio, Texas, with a desire to work with animals. “I was never a true city-girl at heart,” she said.
Kuntz earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major in animal science and equine science before graduating from CSU’s DVM program in 2017.
She took part in an internship at CSU’s Beef Improvement Center in Saratoga, Wyoming, where she learned about multiple aspects of cow-calf production. “After this experience, I knew my calling was to help fill the veterinarian shortage as a rural, mixed-animal practitioner,” she said.
Earlier in 2018, Kuntz decided to purchase Dr. Tom Parks’s veterinary practice in Yuma, Colorado, where she’ll serve clients in a 50-mile radius on the northeastern plains of Colorado. Access to reliable veterinary care in this area is limited for both large and small animals, because the majority of veterinarians are nearing retirement and limiting practice hours, Kuntz said.
“Our communities need easily accessible, quality veterinary care options,” she added.
Kuntz said being among the first recipients of this award is a blessing and “amazing.”
“It means a lot, having the state of Colorado recognize the importance of having veterinarians in underserved areas,” she said.
Kuntz said that she is carrying more than $200,000 in debt from student loans, and that this award will go a long way in reducing financial burdens. She said she hopes to now pay off her debts in the next five to 10 years, rather than spreading out payments over 25 years.
“It’s a huge impact for my family,” she said. “I have a young son and my husband is helping me purchase the practice. This helps us financially afford the business, and we look better to our bankers.”
Kuntz said she’s already seen the impact of her work in Yuma and Washington counties.
“It’s amazing to have this support from the state for rural communities,” she said. “They need it. In the last four months of being here, these producers are so excited to having access to veterinary care and perspective for their operations.”
A life-changing new program
Scott Johnson, a rancher who owns the Flying Diamond Ranch in Kit Carson, Colorado, serves as chair of the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program council. He said the new program is a “good first step.”
“On behalf of my sixth-generation eastern Colorado ranch family, I support the new veterinary (loan repayment) program, which addresses the shortage of large animal veterinarians in rural Colorado. We appreciate the legislature taking action and enacting this program, too.”
Dr. Kayla Henderson, vice-chair of the council and a veterinarian at Alpine Veterinary Hospital in Monte Vista, Colorado, said the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program is “life changing,” not only for the young, passionate-but-indebted veterinarian, but also for the livestock producers of Colorado and their animals.
“One of our awardees, Dr. Kayle Austin, is helping to make the Colorado dairy industry stronger by educating producers and herdsmen and by being accessible for medical and surgical needs,” she said. “She’s changing the face of the industry just by simply having a passion for it and by being available.”
“Our other awardee, Dr. Callie Kuntz, is the five-years-younger version of myself: living the rural American dream of owning a practice in a small Colorado town, working on every species great and small, and raising a family, all while being encumbered by heavy student loans,” Henderson added.
The other members of the Veterinary Education Loan Repayment Program council include Dr. Melinda Frye, associate dean of the DVM Program, CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; Dr. Keith Roehr, director and State Veterinarian, Animal Health Division, Colorado Department of Agriculture; and Skip Schneider, Colorado Livestock Industry.