A career as a cattle vet - the ups and downs

Organic diary cows

The dairy sector is the biggest employer of farm animal veterinary time, generating about £30 million of fee income for the profession each year. Beef cattle also require considerable veterinary input, but this is more localised and seasonal. Official Veterinarian work, mostly TB testing, creates another £20 million worth of work, but may diminish in the near future. If you want to get into cattle vetting in a big way, then dairy cows will provide you with a secure living and a rewarding career.

When I asked a group of dedicated and enthusiastic cattle vets in my own practice, ‘Why be a cattle vet?’, there was a variety of immediate responses. ‘Fun’, was the first and most common reply. It is fun, enjoyable and rewarding to work with animals that are biddable, productive, generally cooperative and very likeable. Cows are great. Their owners and keepers are similarly disposed in the majority of cases; it is unusual to find a cattle farmer who does not like and respect cows, and that makes working with them so much easier. We mostly work with willing clients who appreciate our involvement and want us to succeed.

The ups...

The geographical distribution of cattle farms means that we work in some of the most attractive areas of the country, outside, and on our own.

Devon has been my home and workplace for 30 years, and I am still in awe of the views and countryside each and every day. When we walk the fields to reach our patients, we see views and wildlife that visitors would pay to see, and experience the countryside at its best.

We are frequently confronted with challenges; problems for which solutions have to be found using our skills, knowledge, ingenuity and common sense. The ‘fire brigade’ aspects of the work are still commonplace, with calvings, abdominal disasters and sick cows being a day-to-day occurrence in a busy cattle practice. While we have trained our more able clients to deal with most first aid situations, the demands for a higher level of technical ability increase, ensuring that we continually hone our skills and technical knowledge.

"The geographical distribution of cattle farms means that we work in some of the most attractive areas of the country"

The value of the animals makes treatment worthwhile, and there is little resistance, for example, to techniques that involve surgical intervention; we commonly explore the abdominal cavities of cows, and will happily tackle most acute surgical conditions with little resistance from our clients.

The major attraction for many of us in cattle practice is the strategic approach to cattle health: the population medicine that ensures that health and disease are managed at herd level. This provides the biggest challenge, and the biggest gain. Here, the financial aspects of cattle farming become an important factor in planning for health, and the mutual understanding of the costs and bene-fits of health and production become part of the relationship between the farmer and vet.

The relationship with the client is a key component of cattle vetting. We see our farmers regularly and frequently, sometimes on a daily basis. We build trust and respect, which comes with experience and communication. It can be unfortunate that a new vet is judged on the first case, but cunning practice management will ensure that the first impression will be a good one. Many a new vet wins client approval by a professional calving, a polished dehorning or a slick castration. The judgement will be based on attitude, ability and handling skills. Vets with an empathy for cattle and their keepers will gain more trust and respect than the technical experts.

...and downs

So, why not be a cattle vet? Well, it can be cold and wet. It can be mundane and dull; TB testing for six hours a day, or ‘rectalling’ 100 cows on a cold winter morning, can seem an endless task. It can be physically demanding and draining working with heavy animals in less than ideal conditions. It can be mentally demanding solving difficult problems under pressure from demanding and worried clients whose livelihood will depend on your judgements.

"It can be mentally demanding solving difficult problems under pressure from demanding and worried clients"

The cattle vet world is becoming competitive; bigger practices chasing what appears to be a declining marketplace is creating an undesirable atmosphere in some areas. There is a danger that the cattle veterinary profession will degrade to a trade as price becomes a selling point. Although client loyalty is less reliable than it was in times gone by, most clients are more discerning than we think, and they will select a vet on service and delivery rather than the offer of trinkets or the price of mastitis tubes.

Commitment to the future

Vets considering a career in cattle vetting would be wise to select a practice that has a true commitment to the future. Attitude and infrastructure will determine the destiny of any cattle practice, and although size is not everything, any practice with fewer than three committed farm vets will struggle to offer a comprehensive service and support system for the new entrant. In the world of modern veterinary practices, it would be prudent to determine whether a practice offers a credible career structure as well as adequate support in what can be a challenging workplace. Structured out-of-hours working, time off and a realistic work/life balance are now the norm in most modern cattle practices, and although salaries may be less than can be expected in companion animal work, the rewards make up for it. And there are no evening surgeries!

If you like cows, farmers and the countryside, and have the enthusiasm and belief in being part of an industry that converts air, sunshine and water into milk and meat, then there will always be a place for you in cattle practice.

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