Any Farmers Weekly reader who is buying a new tractor will have a very specific idea about what he wants from it and will have researched the market with care. Farmers are pretty canny consumers and know where to invest resources to make their businesses successful. So why aren’t they doing the same when it comes to buying veterinary expertise?
As chairman of DEFRA’s vets and vet services working group, I had a rare opportunity to talk to farmers and farm vets all over the UK. While the vets were conscious of a loss of focus on farm veterinary practice and saw this as a looming problem for UK farming, the farmers were often solely concerned with the cost of vet services.
But can farmers really be content to see the increasing drift of the veterinary profession towards small animal practice? Chronic problems such as mastitis and lameness hit the physical and financial performance of animals. Food scares over E coli, salmonella and cryptosporidium all take their toll on farm businesses, as well as on public health. Surely the interests of vets and farmers are not mutually exclusive, and a healthy farm veterinary service will benefit us all?
My experience on the working group convinced me that, as consumers, farm businesses are much too passive.
Farmers are well aware of the state of the livestock industry in the UK, increasing competition from a global market and decreasing subsidies. At the same time, environmental, welfare and food assurance standards are getting tougher. Keeping down production costs – including expenditure on vets – becomes ever more crucial.
But that means using veterinary advice in the most effective way that will help to produce a higher value product.
For instance, many farm health plans are still prepared without any veterinary input. And yet we know from the Sheep Veterinary Society farm health planning project that farmers who do not engage a vet are more likely to overmedicate (and overspend), particularly for parasite control.
Farmers have to get better at identifying these kinds of benefits, and at telling vets what outcomes they need.
We already see some of this behaviour from the larger farm enterprises, particularly dairy producers, who are much more likely to “shop around” for “better value” or for specific expertise.
My report recommends, among other measures, that the veterinary profession should set up a development council to reconnect professional education and training with the needs of its customers. But in order for that to be achieved, you the customers have to be more vocal, and engage positively with your vets at an individual and NFU level, to explore options for the future.
After all, isn’t it time you put as much thought into choosing your vet as you would into choosing an expensive new tractor?
Philip Lowe is Director of the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, and author of the independent report Unlocking Potential: A Report on Veterinary Experties in Food Animal Production.
What do you think? Share your experiences of picking a vet on our forum.