Changing my role from vet to dairy consultant and trainer, has given me a happier life. Not only that, focusing on prevention instead of curing has improved the wellbeing of cows and farmers around me. In this article I’ll tell you my story of going from vet to advisor and the obstacles I had to face. I hope it will inspire more vets to take on a role as consultant.
At the start of my career I was still figuring out my exact duty as a vet. Obviously it has to do with taking care of animals. I’ll always remember when I wanted to start practising in Ireland, after having been a vet for two year in the Netherlands. Before I could do so, I had to swear with my hand on the bible that I would apply myself to improving animal welfare. Nothing like that was ever asked of me in the Netherlands, and I liked how they emphasized the foundation of being a vet:
Animal welfare is your responsibility
However, the question that remained for me was: How do I improve animal welfare? From those first two years as a vet in the Netherlands I remember there was a big difference in quality between farms. I think I had around 40 dairy farms I visited regularly and 10 of those where great. I learned a lot from these farmers and could bring that knowledge to most other farmers, who were interested in learning. However, there were also the worst farms where I had to come over and over again for the same issues. Though these are mostly the exception, I think every vet will attest that there are always a few farmers like this in their area. I never looked forward to visiting these farms, because it didn’t feel like I was improving animal welfare. I was just helping sustain a bad system. If I was really making a difference, the animals wouldn’t become sick in the first place.
The obvious thing to do as a vet is to visit farms and take care of the sick animals. You are trained to treat and solve. Of course it is good to provide relief and as a vet you should do so. But doesn’t providing true animal welfare means going a step further? Ideally we would prevent disease from ever happening.
True animal welfare means preventing disease, not just curing it
Looking at the general health care system for cows, there is one hard conclusion to draw: we earn money from illness. If we really want to provide animal welfare, we have to find a way to earn money with prevention and that means fundamentally changing our role as vets.
For me, I had a clear picture of where things went wrong: housing and management. I started to look at what the best 1 % farmers in East-Netherlands where doing. I selected them based on the data of a feeding company and started to learn from them. It gave surprising results. I noticed there are three things that every cow needs: maximum rest, maximum feed intake and stress-free calving.
From these insights me and my partner Jan Hulsen developed a training ‘Looking at the cow’. It turned out to be a real eye-opener for farmers and advisors. I think only 2 out of 10 farmers is doing an excellent job in observing and managing cows. The rest still has a lot to learn from them. The same goes for vets. I believe they have an excellent clinical eye, but have created a blind spot for things outside their own area of expertise.
Going from a vet to a trainer and advisor isn’t easy. Not only do you have to change what you do, you also have to change the way farmers see your role. Common sense tells us however that preventing disease improves animal welfare and increases the farmer’s labour efficiency and income. They are interested in that. Combining your job as a vet with a role as consultant is really possible. The trick is to look at better housing and management and become successful at persuasion.
We need to change our role as vets
The importance of advisory skills I’ve discovered the hard way. I will always remember the first time I tried to act as an advisor in stead of only a vet. I was visiting a farmer and I gave him some tips on how he could make some small changes to prevent problems in the future. I thought that would be a great help for him, but before I was even back at our vet practise he had already called there: I was too rude and direct and he didn’t want me back on his farm again. Turned out helping people as an advisor was not just about knowing about cows. It also had to do with understanding people.
After that, I invested in developing advisory skills. I took a couple of classes in communication at the university and I did an NLP-course (neuro linguistic programming). Learning how to listen, ask the right questions and take away insecurities has really helped me become a successful advisor.
You have to invest in advisory skills
My final question to you is: what are you waiting for? I can assure it is a very satisfactory step to start working more on preventing wounds, lameness and disease with farmers. I recognize it is a challenge: you have to learn more about factors that can prevent disease, invest in advisory skills and create a financial sustainable model to do all this. However, you don’t have to do this alone! We can help you with this at CowSignals or you can find colleagues who are already doing things in this area. Together we can change the way we take care of cows and farmers.
Joep Driessen as a consultant
What are your experiences? How do you see the role as vet? How can we make a change to prevention? We like to know what you think!