2010 FW Awards: Livestock Adviser of the Year finalist – Mark Burnell

Recognising the need to change the business and the service it offers its clients best summarises Mark Burnell’s ethos.

A director of Synergy Farm Health, a practice built round 17 farm vets created last November, Mr Burnell has spearheaded a different approach to veterinary services in Dorset.

Already a partner in a smaller practice including six farm vets, he and his colleagues agreed to merge with the farming arm of another to combine talents and resources.

“We planned it on the back of a beer mat in the pub one night,” he quips.

A key challenge was to change the business model so it was more focused on the advice and less on the mark-up made from sales of medicines, he explains.

“We could understand that people didn’t like the mark-ups, and also with the internet it was becoming much more transparent. We started to think of a package that reduced the medicine price that worked for us and the farmer.”

And although it was possible to tweak the fees to recover some of the lost income, he said there was a need to look at scale to make important cost savings.

Eight months on – how has it gone?

“Most vets are not trained in business management so probably we were a bit naive on what the merger was going to involve,” he says. “But what was exciting was that we would be working with more vets of a similar mind.”

Indeed team ethic underpins Mr Burnell’s approach to the job.

“Although we’re basically still working our two patches, there is starting to be cross-over to help each other.”

The team is also more than the 17 farm vets. “We’ve trained three people to be Suitably Qualified Persons (SQPs) for dispensing and prescribing medicines.”

He also recognises the need to make best use of resources. With a lot of veterinary tasks being technical procedures, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t train people to do some to allow the vets more time for all-important consultancy and advice.

“We also have a team of five para-professionals who do foot trimming, deliver our heifer rearing service (weighing animals and putting in advice programmes), freeze branding, dis-budding and mobility scoring.”

Possible changes to government TB testing arrangements could have an impact on the business since this role may be taken away from practices. But Mr Burnell’s syringe is half full on this one.

“We’d approach any change as an opportunity. We’d have to tender but it is an important point of contact with the client.”

Computer technology is playing an increasingly important part in Mr Burnell’s offering. “As a practice we are developing a program for mobility scoring. We needed a system which was paperless and instant. Lameness is THE thing so there’s going to be a drive for scoring.”

The program is very much a work in progress but will, in time, collect data on foot trimming and lameness, laboratory records, cell counts, vaccines and other clinical information.

A key driver of the merger has also been to ensure there is the right “ladder” in place to encourage new vets to specialise in farm animals. “There’s a lack of supply of young vets,” Mr Burnell says. “It’s probably the fear factor, so getting confidence on farm is important.”

Training is crucial alongside contact with veterinary schools to offer extra-mural placements for upcoming vet students, both of which Mr Burnell takes direct responsibility for.

And what of the future?

“There’s huge scope in this country for good veterinary advice. I hope in 10 years’ time we’ll have a really good structure for vets in our business where we’re teaching each other and teaching farmers. I’d like it to be a bit like Marks & Spencer where everyone has a bit of a share in the practice.”

• Enthusiasm for the job
• Clearly defined strategy for the future
• Ability to bring all sides of the team together
• Achieved buy-in for the importance of training

It’s not just the advice, but the way it’s imparted, says client Nick Cobb a farmer with an 800-cow dairy herd at West Chaldon near Weymouth.

“He’s an attention-to-detail bloke and has been integral to our expansion. He’s more than a vet – he’s our health manager.”

• For more on the 2010 Farmers Weekly Awards
• For more on the 2010 finalists

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