18th January 2022

How do we make herd/flock health management sexy? by Andy Cant, Director of Northvet Veterinary Group in Orkney.

How do we make herd/flock health management sexy?

by Andy Cant, Director of Northvet Veterinary Group in Orkney.

Firstly, don’t call it a Health Plan!

No one likes to mention the elephant in the room, but not all farmers are rejoicing when they ask for input from their vet into producing a “health plan”.   No one likes being told you must have something in place, it’s that red tape phobia thing.  It may have been something that previously you did yourself - what’s a vet going to add?  Many don’t see the value in it - everything’s going fine.  Or conversely, things are not good, I don’t want to face up to it, let’s just forget last year, next year will be better.  In the past where there were financial incentives to engage in health planning under LMO and LMC schemes, it perhaps encouraged a tick box attitude (by farmers and vets) towards the topic which devalued the perception of its usefulness.  So, there are many reasons why a “health plan” has negative connotations.  It’s time for a paradigm shift in health planning!

Now, I’m being a bit brutal; the reality is we have a lot of clients who fully engage in herd health planning and see great value in it.  Even just taking the time to sit down and discuss the previous year, good or bad, and what the future might bring can be cathartic and worthwhile.  Different enterprises have varying contact with their vets during the year, dairy tends to come top, beef second, and then sheep - what sheep!  Whilst on dairies conversations regarding health can be ongoing during the year, on beef and sheep enterprises the annual sit down may be one of the few chances to discuss animal health, welfare and productivity with your vet.

Okay, so what will we call it?  The Annual Farm Health Consultation.  And why do you want an Annual Farm Health Consultation?  (Note I’m not asking why you need one!  Let’s start to embrace the concept!)

You want to run a successful, profitable business - lots of things can impact that, but in a livestock enterprise, at the most basic of levels control or eradication of disease = improved welfare = improved production = economic benefit to producer. You want access to markets and a premium for recognising your standards of health, welfare and production.  This is where recognised umbrella farm assurance schemes such as QMS and Red Tractor come in to market your wares, and part of that assurance is now farm health consultations with your vet. Specific diseases you want to show your freedom from.  Some are mandatory at a national level such as BVD.  Others may be specific to your farm, for example Johne’s Disease Risk-Level Certification under a CHECS accredited programme to get a premium on selling heifers. Keeping third parties that are looking over your shoulder happy!  It can be very helpful should the need arise to have something written down which helps show you are discharging your duty to look after the health and welfare of animals under your care.  Specific retailers may have specific requirements not covered elsewhere, for example in relation to lameness levels.  Others may be looking at evidence of responsible antimicrobial use, and parasite control.  The end consumer may be assuming such things are in place – let’s not disappoint them.  Far better to have thought through challenging questions that might come up and have addressed providing good answers, than playing catchup later. The future - as William Gibson said, it’s already here, just unevenly distributed.  The consequences of Brexit on access to markets, the transition to a new support payment package for agriculture in 2025, and the climate change commitment by the Scottish Government to net zero agriculture by 2045 already should be at the forefront of your mind.  Your success in accessing and attaining much of that will be down to, yes, you’ve guessed it, having The Annual Farm Health Consultation in place.

So, what’s involved in putting the Annual Farm Health Consultation together and what should be in it?  There are templates produced by assurance schemes which can seem a bit generic, and computer programmes put together by experts that are fantastic if you can enter all the required data but may be over the top in practical terms.  Let’s face it – it’s a turn off.  What you want is something that you have had input into, which is relatively simple, bespoke to your farm, that you want to actively implement, and you might be mildly excited about!

In reviewing the previous year, we want to pinpoint where losses occurred and what caused them, i.e. what was the problem?  That then leads to you and your vet discussing which solutions are practical, cost-effective and would work on your farm.

The first stumbling block is obtaining data for reviewing the previous year’s production (on sheep enterprises it’s the second, third and fourth stumbling block!).  The second is time to dig out the data.  It will exist on dairy and beef enterprises, but with sheep it can be more elusive.  How many lambs did you lose? … see, you don’t know either!  It really is a joint effort and both vet and farmer need to do their homework before meeting up.  In our practice we send out a sheet prior to the consultation, requesting the information we want.  That saves precious time for us both and allows us to hone in on meaningful discussions, rather than poring over calving records, trying to make sense of them - which will have you exhausted before you start!  Having the data looked out before we begin helps the efficiency of the process, keeps the mood lighter and makes the whole experience more enjoyable, meaningful and valuable.

We also send out a questionnaire prior to the consultation, covering various aspects that may not jump out of the numerical data that’s gathered.  It can cover housing, nutrition, your attitudes to various aspects of animal health etc.  As well as making sure we cover all the main areas pertaining to animal health, it can help show what areas you excel in, and what areas challenge you.  That can help broaden out our discussions, as it is easy to get totally focused in on one specific area which has been a problem.  We don’t want this to be a depressing experience – let’s celebrate the wins as well as acknowledging the challenges.

The output from your Annual Farm Health Consultation is not for filing away, never to see the light of day until an inspector turns up.  This is your Farm Health document that needs to live and be acted upon.  You’ve got to own it.  For that to happen, let’s not get bogged down in pages and pages of a report.  We generally pick the top three things that are impacting your business, and that we have agreed to find and implement solutions for.  These are the important action points.

Figure 1

A lot of the other information in the document we like to illustrate graphically: it’s visual, it’s quick, no long words.  Illustrating your figures against industry standards is easier to take in visually, and “Where are you losing it?” (Figure 1) gives a breakdown of how you only ended up with 108 calves weaned from the 129 cows that went to the bull.  A graph sometimes has more impact.  Antimicrobial usage when boiled down into mg/kg on the beef and sheep side also can be better seen visually (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Other areas mentioned in the health plan may seem to be more bog standard.  For instance, regulations regarding castration, tail docking and disbudding - but has everybody on your farm seen that?  And what’s new in biosecurity and quarantine arrangements – that’s been on the go for a while.  Even Robbie Burns had it sussed in his poem, where Auld Mallie the ewe is giving advice to her offspring:

“O, may thou ne'er forgather up,

Wi' ony blastit, moorland toop;

But aye keep mind to moop an' mell,

Wi' sheep o' credit like thysel'!”


Sounds like he had a good handle on biosecurity - no point asking him if he had a disinfectant foot bath for visitors!  The fact is, these small matters are so important - don’t wait for a biosecurity breach to point that out.

A calendar setting out timings for vaccinations, sampling, testing and dosing is another useful addition to the document.

How do you do?  Comparing against industry standards is one thing, but good data and interpretation gets more interesting when compared with your peers locally (Figure 3).  Yes, we’re nosey! -  but no harm done if it acts as an incentive to do better.  Everyone likes to know where they are in the pecking order, albeit anonymously.  It can be a pat on the back or a kick up the backside!

Figure 3

It’s time to embrace the Annual Farm Health Review.  Its production is a shared venture and effort between you and your vet and sometimes other advisors.  It should be something you see as useful and valuable and an integral part of your farm health and welfare management.   

So what is that paradigm shift? (No, it’s not a new gear changing system on your tractor!) It’s seeing things differently, in a new light.  “Health Plan” no more!

Andy Cant is a director of Northvet Veterinary Group in Orkney.

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