'Fire brigade veterinary' is the most expensive option of all for farmers

Eamon O'Connell works with Summerhill Veterinary Clinic in Nenagh
Eamon O'Connell works with Summerhill Veterinary Clinic in Nenagh

Eamon O'Connell

What's the first thing that springs to mind when you think of your vet? This is a question I put to a group of farmers at a recent Knowledge Transfer (KT) meeting.

"TB testing" was the most popular answer, followed quickly by "antibiotics". One farmer said "fierce expensive" with a wry smile on his face. This bit of banter was, of course, all in jest.

However, for many farmers across the country the only routine visit carried out by the vet is the yearly herd test. All other visits are fire-brigade in nature: the difficult calving; the outbreak of pneumonia; or the sick calf. The vet arrives into the farmer's yard, treats a sick animal, possibly leaves some follow-up treatment and then drives away, on to the next farm to perform a similar task.

The reason this is called "fire-brigade veterinary" is because it is very similar to putting out fires.

Take for example, the case of a pneumonia outbreak. The vet is called to a number of coughing animals that have a reduced appetite.

He/she injects a number of sick animals and basically helps to stop the disease in question spreading throughout the herd - effectively putting out the fire. However, as with any fire, there is a lot of damage can be done before it is quenched. Damage in this instance is measured in hard cash. Despite our best efforts, an animal that is treated may die.

This is very quantifiable and obvious damage, as is the vet's bill for the call-out and treatment.

Less obvious damage however, is the loss of weight gain in the few days preceding and the month following such an outbreak.

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Everyone can relate in some way to this scenario. It prompts one obvious question: is there any way that this could possibly be prevented?

The answer is not a simple yes. No matter what we do, there will always be a calf with scour or a weanling with pneumonia that needs treatment asap.

What we can do is anticipate problems and put a plan in place to prevent them. This is where the Knowledge Transfer programme comes in to its own.

Every farmer that has signed up to the programme must, in co-ordination with his/her vet, complete a herd health plan.

The vet must meet with the farmer, discuss any health issues that are specific to the farm, set goals and put a plan in place to achieve those goals.

It is called a herd health plan, but, in fact, it is much more than that. It is a full audit of the health of the animals on farm, including all aspects that can influence animal health. These include bio-security, parasite control, housing, nutrition and vaccination protocols.

Now, I know what some people are thinking: "this is just another way for the vets to get more money out of us".

No doubt, the vet will have to be paid for the time he/she invests.

However, this on-farm risk assessment is not only a money-saver for the farmer, it has the potential to be a money-maker.

If an outbreak of pneumonia on a suckler farm can be prevented, then, not only is there no vet bill for treatment, but there is no loss of live-weight gain which ultimately means more money for the farmer.

Similarly, if the fertility of a dairy herd can be improved, then it means a lower cull rate, more calves on the ground, more milk in the tank and more money in the farmer's pocket.

Surely, any farmer would prefer to sit down with a vet for two hours at a quiet time of year and put a comprehensive herd health plan in place rather than go through the hardship and expense of a number of fire-brigade calls during a busy spring.

Now, the herd health plan is by no means a silver bullet. Every farm is dynamic in nature, stock move in and out, as do people and even wildlife.

The plan will have to be constantly reviewed and tweaked to account for changes. Every vet in the country wants to see their clients succeed in and profit from their farming enterprises.

The herd health plan has the potential to be the corner stone for success on any farm. Instead of viewing it as another box to tick, it should be seen as something that can benefit every farmer financially, far beyond the three years of payment for joining the KT programme.

There are only two certainties in life - death and taxes. Many farmers will say there is a third - the vet's bill.

However, it's definitely easier to pay a smaller bill after a profitable, hassle-free year on the farm.

Eamon O'Connell works with the Summerhill Veterinary Clinic in Nenagh, Co Tipperary

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