Disease? Not On My Farm! Ambassador Blog
How farmers can benefit from vet student placements
Over the past 20 years Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador, William Westacott, has hosted around 60 vet students at his dairy farm on the Chevening Estate in Kent.
Providing the next generation of vets with valuable experience, placements can also help to forge better understanding between vets and farmers. William explains the lessons he’s learned.
How to find a vet student
Initially, we were approached by friends of friends, whose children were going to vet school and needed experience. Then we got on the universities’ Extra-Mural Studies mailing lists and have had students from Bristol, Liverpool, Surrey, and Nottingham. It’s great having students to stay, it’s something I really enjoy.
Every year, we have three or four vet students to help during our autumn block calving, which starts in September. The placements are a worthwhile investment of my time and having additional hands on the farm is particularly helpful during busy periods.
Have a proper training structure in place
On our farm one of the team will take the students with them to check the dry cows and talk through what we’re looking for health and welfare-wise. They would then spend time with a different person in the farm workforce to see how we do different jobs from calving assistance, colostrum management, tagging, recording, monitoring and hygiene.
In total, they spend time with three different people on-farm, including myself. We all look at things differently, so it’s useful for them to encounter different viewpoints and get a well-rounded experience.
Be realistic about vet student abilities
We’ve had students at different stages, most commonly second and third year students with some experience under their belt. However, some are totally green - like a young girl of 16 who has helped. They can be very nervous and lacking in practical knowledge when they start, however they’re very bright and keen to learn, which is incredibly useful.
You certainly need to make time to get them off on the right foot and that means setting out clear responsibilities and being prepared to oversee their work at the offset. They all want to develop their skills, and as a farmer, you can help.
See it as an opportunity to learn yourself
I find it fascinating having vet students working with us - the way they observe our farm protocols, ask objective questions and sometimes come up with ideas on how we can improve the farm’s system. It always makes me stop and think about 'the why’ we’re doing something the way we do. I’m happy to listen to anybody who offers ideas as it can broaden our thinking. If you remain open minded, you will continue learning yourself and have a chance to make small improvements over time.
How to manage difficult situations
Different issues can crop up unexpectedly and there will be times when everyone is feeling the pressure which gives a true reflection of the realities of dairy farming. There’s always lots for students to see, especially when our vet is involved. For example, two students were here when we had a 540-degree uterine torsion and one had a very good experience on how to stitch up a C-section. When the vet is on our premises, the students spend their time with them.
It’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes. Managing these situations calmly is key. Make time to discuss the situation afterwards and how the outcome could have been improved.
It’s all about your assessment of their capability. I tell them it’s normal to make mistakes, as long as they own up to it. I don’t expect them to know everything. In my experience, students respond really positively to being given responsibility, so my advice is to assess their abilities, and try to channel this in a productive way.
Take pride in what you do
Having the right attitude is definitely a bonus, as is remembering that each individual on placement will contribute something different. Having vet students around can be really stimulating and gives you the chance to share your pride and your passion for your cows.
Farmers love to talk about their livestock and I’m happy to explain why we do things and where we strive to make improvements. I think it adds value all round and helps to build stronger vet and farmer relations.
Nothing beats that personal, first-hand insight as a trainee vet so I would encourage all dairy farmers to consider giving it a try.
- Early on-farm experiences for vet students can help to lay the foundation for positive farmer-vet relations, as well as setting out standard health and welfare routines, within a real-life context.
- By investing time in mentoring and training at the start of the placement, both parties will get the best from the experience.
- Having a total novice on farm is not the disadvantage it might seem; it is a great way to impart your knowledge when approached with the right attitude.
- Being prepared to answer lots of questions is vital. Having robust systems of communication and a trusting environment where it’s acceptable to ask for help will help famers to get the best from their students.
- Provide a truer reflection of the realities of dairy farming – share the ups and the downs of faming life with your vet students.