TAKING control of your vets bill and using your vet as a medium for preventing disease and cutting reliance on drugs is the way forward for profitable livestock and vet businesses.
Vets have recently been criticised for charging too much for drugs. But Cheshire vet Neil Howie of the Nantwich Vet Group says the real problem is that UK producers pay for drugs and treatment, rather than disease prevention.
Producers may pay a higher mark-up on medicines in the UK than in Ireland, but they also pay far less for their vets time, he says.
"Irish vets hourly rates are 50-100% higher than in the UK and all vets are paid generously for TB testing, which subsidises producers."
Vets have to strike a balance between what they charge for their time and what they can make from medicines in order to make an reasonable profit, he adds. They could reduce the cost of drugs, but producers would have to pay more for their time.
But the way most UK producers use their vets is flawed, he says.
"It is easy to consider your vets bill as a negative, but it should be seen as a way of keeping animals in the herd healthy and performing well for as long as possible."
When investigating vet costs, they should be checked against livestock depreciation charges in farm accounts. This reveals how many animals are being lost each year and how well the vet is used.
"A high vet bill and low livestock depreciation should be acceptable. But a low vet bill and high depreciation may be costing more," he says. Costs should also be reviewed on each saleable unit; for milking cows that means on a p/litre basis.
The vet should be used to help prevent disease and to plan disease control. "Good health and production go hand in hand with good planning." He suggests that dry cow management and vaccination policy are areas where your vet should be involved in disease management.
Daily and weekly routines often make it difficult for producers to find time to stand back and review disease. But he believes producers should stand back with their vet and aim to prevent disease, rather than treat it.
"Often we see the same problems year after year on farms and they see it as bad luck. Yet it is often a false economy not to vaccinate and then suffer losses year after year when they are avoidable."
Vets bills should be broken down into different sectors, such as controlling mastitis, rather than viewed as a single cost, he says. This should identify areas that should be investigated with your vet.
"If you spend a lot controlling mastitis but have a high cell count, the spend is not effective. But be aware that spending little money on lameness but having a high culling rate can disguise the number of lame cows. This can happen for many diseases, so check the quality and incidence of diseases as well," says Mr Howie.
He suggests setting targets for disease, and when necessary making your vet liaise with other specialists, such as financial advisers or nutritionists, to meet those targets.
But aiming to achieve lower vet bills by sourcing cheaper drugs is a false economy, he says. The solution is to use fewer drugs and have healthier cattle. But do not put off using drugs to control a problem because they are expensive. Drugs often need to be used promptly for the best result, he says.
Reliant on drugs
"Both vets and farmers have become over-reliant on drugs because they are cheap and access to them is easy. There is also still a return for a cow that lets you down and has to be culled. But, in future, if it costs money to dispose of fallen stock it will encourage producers to reduce losses.
"If vets charged more for their time, rather than giving advice in passing, and were keener to sell that advice, perhaps producers would take more notice.
"I prefer to visit a farm to prevent disease. That producers best interests are not served by selling drugs to treat an ongoing problem. But producers think vets want to sell them more, so do not ask them to visit. In the long term, it is in our best interests to have successful clients.
"But if we cut our drug prices, we would have to charge more to stay in business." *
• Calving problems.
• Prevention – vaccines.