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The changing role of vets on farm

The challenge of improving herd health by taking a more preventative approach to animal health and welfare can require a change of mindset for both farmers and vets.

It is useful to be able to benchmark what is happening on your own farm, says Matt Dobbs.

Matt Dobbs, ruminant director at Westpoint Vets
Matt Dobbs, ruminant director at Westpoint Vets

By taking a more preventative approach to disease control, the amount of veterinary input needed on-farm may not change, but is likely to be delivered in a different way with the focus on herd health planning, analysing data to highlight problem areas and putting strategies in place to tackle them.

In addition to improving animal health and welfare, this should reduce the amount of time and money spent treating sick animals, as well as improving productivity, but to be successful, farmers must have the confidence to invest in veterinary advice.

Veterinary input is often regarded by farmers as a variable cost which can be cut as margins come under pressure, but Matt Dobbs, ruminant director at Westpoint Vets believes this should not be the case.

He says: “Animal health and welfare should be a fixed cost rather than a variable one. Improving herd health and increasing productivity are intrinsically linked and, as such, investing in health should increase profitability.”

But it is up to vets to demonstrate that a return on investment, for example, in vaccination strategies or disease eradication schemes, can be made by increasing output or lowering disease.

Mr Dobbs says: “This involves the vet working closely with the farmer, taking a holistic approach looking across all enterprises, knowing the economics of the farm and also being realistic in terms of what level of investment is needed to provide an acceptable return.

On a dairy unit, I believe that an investment of 1-2 ppl (pence per litre) on health can provide a return of 2.5-4 ppl. Conversely, poor herd health can cost 2.4-4 ppl.”

Mr Dobbs says some farmers chose to take a more traditional approach being prepared to accept health losses of 2.5-4 ppl and using a vet for emergencies only.

Others do not invest, but still use the vet a lot to fix problems or in the case of disease outbreaks which can prove to be expensive.

He says: “Traditionally, vets have made a good margin on the sale of medicines and tended to undercharge for their time and services.

But the drive to reduce antibiotic use has contributed to a change in this balance and the development of different payment schemes. This has led to more vets specialising enabling them to provide cutting edge advice which they can charge more for.

Over the last 15 years, about half to two-thirds of our clients have moved onto contracts. Each one is bespoke to the individual farm and, for example, may be based on the number of hours of veterinary work likely to be undertaken, pounds per cow or pence per litre, usually based on previous years’ requirements.

The figure is then divided by 12 and payments are made monthly. It may be split between services and medicines, which is often a good way of highlighting where most money is being spent and where problems are.

We usually sit down with clients during summer when it is a bit quieter and look at what is to be included in their fee, what their targets and aims are, which might be to eradicate a particular disease or improve fertility.

It is really useful to benchmark what is happening on your own farm year-on-year.

For this to be effective, a whole team approach has to be taken with everyone on the farm involved from the herdsman to the nutritionist, so they know what is happening and what the aims are.”

Historically, beef farmers tend to have less vet contact than dairy farmers, but Mr Dobbs says the last few years have seen changes.

He says: “Beef farmers are now starting to engage much more with their vets and we are encouraging them to take a more proactive approach to health by implementing vaccination schemes, eradicating disease, improving fertility and parasite control. Again, we offer payment schemes to fit their needs.”

Harriet Fuller, veterinary consultant, Herefordshire

Harriet Fuller has taken a step back from veterinary practice to start a new role as a consultant with the aim of working with farmers in a more holistic way, taking an overview of their whole enterprise and looking at how various aspects, such as grassland management and nutrition, as well as disease control, can impact on animal health and productivity.

She says: “Because some farmers do not have a lot of vet contact, they underestimate what vets can offer in terms of advice.

“Margins on beef and sheep units are tight, so for farmers to be prepared to pay for advice they have to be able to perceive its value, so it must have measurable outcomes and a realistic cost.

“It also requires farmers to know their current level of production and costs, so they know if financial improvement has been made, but some, especially beef and sheep farmers, do not have this information.

“Most farms could make improvements in productivity and, as support payments decline or disappear, they are going to have to focus on being more efficient.”

William Westacott, Home Farm, Sevenoaks

Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador and dairy farmer William Westacott, who farms near Sevenoaks, Kent, is a client of Westpoint Vets.

I pay a fixed charge every month which has been agreed in advance, based on the amount of vet time we needed in the previous year. This is reviewed, usually at the end of the calving block, to make sure it is in line. We also then look at things such as whether we are meeting our KPIs and what action needs to be taken.

It is important to me to know that my staff can call a vet at any time if there is a sick animal, without having to worry about the cost of out-of-hours call-out charges.

Kirsty Ranson, Westmorland Vets, Cumbria

Kirsty Ranson is in regular contact with her dairy clients through routine scanning or fertility visits, which gives an opportunity to drive preventative treatment, but she says engaging with beef and sheep farmers can be more challenging.

Kirsty Ranson, Westmorland Vets, Cumbria
Kirsty Ranson, Westmorland Vets, Cumbria

She says: “Each of our farming clients has their own regular vet and a second vet to cover holidays, etc. This means the vet gets to know the farm, can follow patterns and build a picture of what is happening, which can prompt discussion about other issues and problems and how they could be addressed.

Clients are charged on a time basis, paying for every five minutes we are there, with a minimum of 20 minutes, but there is no call-out charge. We have found this encourages them to be ready for when we get there and, for many, this has resulted in an improvement in handling facilities to speed things up, which also makes it safer for everyone with less stress on animals.

We do not have as much contact with beef and sheep clients, but that is not to say that there are not areas where we could help them make improvements. But because they tend to be less ‘disease cost aware’ they do not always realise the implications disease may be having on their profitability.

We cannot always prove the benefit some preventative measures or changes may have because they do not have figures to start with.

However, new Red Tractor standards which require an annual health plan and review of antibiotic usage, are a good place to start. We are hoping we can build on this to encourage more farmers to engage with us in taking a more preventative approach to animal health and welfare.”

Iain McCormick, Galedin Vets, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland

Galedin Vets, Northumberland, offers a health plan contract which is paid for by small monthly charge which covers a twice-yearly meeting with a vet to update or create the health plan, analyse data and discuss any issues or set new targets. Clients can contact a vet by phone for advice at any time.

Veterinary surgeon Iain McCormick says: “We have offered this service for a long time now and it is very popular and means we get the chance to sit down with clients and discuss what is happening and formulate a plan for the year."

Veterinary surgeon Iain McCormick (centre) with Fiona and Graeme Skeen
Veterinary surgeon Iain McCormick (centre) with Fiona and Graeme Skeen

“From my point of view, it is very satisfying to be able to make a difference, for example, reducing lameness, by following a plan which has a positive welfare outcome.

There are always a few who will only ever call you out for emergencies and these are the ones which are hardest to engage with, but I think the tide is turning and clients are getting the message about reducing antibiotic use and the need for a more preventative approach.

The Scottish BVD eradication scheme has been very good. With it being compulsory, it is has ensured farmers have to interact with vets and we have picked up health planning work as a result.”

One of Mr McCormick’s clients is Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador Fiona Skeen.

She says: “The vet contract works well for us. Having a vet who knows us and the farm well is very important and the fact we can contact them at any time by phone is invaluable and often the advice they give us can prevent the need for a visit.”


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