2010 FW Awards: Livestock Adviser of the Year finalist – Neil Howe

As the first vet in the UK to win a Nuffield Scholarship in 1986, Neil Howie has been a man in demand for his experience and willingness to challenge the norm.

A partner of some thirty years with Nantwich Veterinary Group, Mr Howie says he had what he describes as his “Damascus moment” two years ago.

“I’d spent thirty years doing a job and achieved very little,” he says modestly. “In two partners’ meetings I persuaded them of the principle of being a health manager. I now sell packages of advice and help my clients by managing that package of advice.”

Mr Howie is keen to point out how important the change in emphasis is.

“We are guilty as a profession of looking at animals as recipients of treatments rather than indicators of health,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time doing second-opinion and investigative work and being the link man with others.”

Always a controversial character, Mr Howie is adamant that more time needs to be spent on improving herd health to maximise performance. “The genetic ability of the nation’s stock has been massively under-utilised,” he believes. “I’m big in getting clients to monitor livestock performance separately from milk performance.”

That relies on a much more detailed understanding of his client’s stock and managing herd health better, as opposed to writing out health plans which he describes as “box ticking” for quality assurance schemes.

“If you look at the British dairy industry it’s eye-watering what’s being wasted.

“The lifetime production of the average dairy cow is 25,000 litres. But some black and white herds are doing 50,000 litres.”

Very often, he says, it’s the cow’s environment that is the issue something which he’s majored on ever since his scholarship. Investment in buildings is crucial for the animals as well as motivating the staff, he adds.

“We’ve grown away from the cow in our businesses. My job is to be the advocate for the cow. There isn’t a mortal cow that asked to be a dairy producer – we’ve got to help them do it!”

Monitoring performance is now so crucial that in conjunction with a colleague he has created his own computer program to report more visibly what’s going on with a herd. “We’re going to launch it as a limited company soon charging £30 per month to our clients and also other vet’s clients providing they are in the loop. We see this as a way of helping other practices that are under pressure from bigger practices.”

The program – Dairy Cow Watch – brings more transparency and is being added to all the time. “It’s a report not a consultation document,” he says. “The feedback we’re getting from feed consultancies and other practices is that they’re going to buy into it. It’s a route into a conversation.”

Mr Howie’s changed role means he has had to relinquish much of the routine work. “For years and years I was lead vet on probably around 25 dairy farms. I now do ‘routines’ on four farms with the rest being consultancy and second-opinion work – I see my role as enhancing the relationship with the local vet.”

Politically, Mr Howie has been outspoken on many platforms over the years, and he’s typically forthright on the issue of TB.

“We need a truth and reconciliation debate. Let’s everyone be honest about TB first and then look at whether there is a better way of employing the vets who do the work.”

TB testing tendering he believes is misguided. “The concept of competing for the right to do ministry work is ridiculous because we have such a personal relationship with our clients. If I go onto a farm where I am not the retained vet, it could be incredibly disruptive to client relationships.”

• Enthusiasm to look after clients outside routine work
• Champion of the smaller farms
• Prepared to put his neck on the line and speak out
• Willingness to see things differently

Mr Howie is taken veterinary consultancy to new levels with a wide-ranging consultancy offering, something that’s been vital for county council tenant farmers Stuart and Julia Dennison.

“Neil’s main involvement was in the planning and development of our new farm buildings,” Mr Dennison says.

“His enthusiasm is unbelievable. He wants the best for the cows.

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