Overcoming recruitment challenges in farm animal veterinary practices

Published on: 24 Feb 2020

Ian Cure

Ian Cure.

Recruiting farm vets has become increasingly difficult in the past few years, as fewer veterinary graduates have been choosing to specialise in farm work. 

As a sector, we’ve been slow to react to trends and predict farm veterinary recruitment would become increasingly challenging. For example, approximately 80% of veterinary graduates in the past 10 years have been female, and this has had a knock-on impact on the overall number of vets leaving the farm sector after a few years to start a family.

This is because compulsory on-call hours and a lack of flexible working opportunities have been, and still are in many ways, the reality of farm work. 

Many feel it isn’t possible to come back to farm work part-time and practices haven’t been able or willing to accommodate them. This means a huge level of experience is being lost from the farm vet profession on a regular basis.

Specialisation is a long-term career decision, and small animal practice can be perceived as the most practical option for women who want both a career and a family, as it is a lot easier to work part-time or choose a role with no out-of-hours.

One-to-one working

Other challenges apply to all farm vets, such as what it means to mostly work on a one-to-one basis with clients. 

The fact no safety net exists of being able to pop into the consulting room next door to ask for a second opinion on a difficult case can make it stressful – especially for vets early in their careers.

With fewer new entrants to farm work, this puts pressure on practices as they manage staff working hours to ensure they offer all required services to farmers. However, I’m optimistic about tackling these challenges and ensuring a sustainable flow of next generation farm vets. VetPartners is taking steps to engage with veterinary students who are considering a farm specialism, as well as offering increased support for new graduates entering the sector and upskilling opportunities for all. 

Engaging with vet students

We want to encourage all veterinary students to consider whether farm work could be the right option for them, as increased diversity in our farm vet workforce can only be a good thing.

As part of our work to overcome the challenge of farm veterinary recruitment, this academic year VetPartners is offering a variety of talks at universities – the aim being to increase awareness of how rewarding farm work can be. These will range from “Survival tips for your first year in practice”, to species-specific talks focusing on clinical issues.

The talks will be key to identifying students who are farm-keen, and then we’ll offer support to those students in developing their EMS plan, so they can be exposed to a wide range of farm experience on their placements.

When it comes to planning placements, the VetPartners group, which includes practices all over the country, has the scope to offer diverse learning opportunities.

For example, a student could be based at Galedin Vets in Scotland, gaining experience of fertility testing in rams. He or she could then have another placement at LLM Farm Vets, building a totally different skill set while on dairy fertility visits. Ultimately, our aim is to upskill vets pre-qualification, so they’re ready to enter the profession with the practical skills, confidence and experience behind them to enable them to flourish from day one. 

Graduate scheme

A commitment to overcoming recruitment challenges and bringing new and skilled farm vets into the profession does not stop at university level. 

In September, VetPartners introduced a farm veterinary graduate scheme, to provide support to farm vets as they begin their careers. 

The scheme includes CPD days covering the full breadth of topics that farm vets need to be fully competent in – from obstetrics and emergencies through to clinical nutrition, udder health and investigation of disease outbreaks.

Previously, a disparity has existed in access to more structured support post-university, with larger practices typically being able to offer more development opportunities. The new programme ensures no matter where graduates are based, they have access to the same level of support, which will help them when navigating their first year of practice. 

The curriculum is designed to build on knowledge and skills covered at university, to enable graduates to develop an evidence-based clinical approach to treating individual animals and tackling flock or herd health problems. The scheme will also provide support in developing the soft skills, such as consultancy and communication skills, which are key to building relationships with farm clients. 

It’s also giving people a cohort, so graduates will be part of a community of peers, who will meet up regularly and be able to share their experiences. 

Upskilling opportunities

Recruiting and retaining sufficient farm vets is key to enabling the sector to thrive. As well as focusing on recruiting new entrants to the veterinary profession, potential exists to create upskilling opportunities for vets at any stage of their career. 

Practices in some areas have a summer lull, with less clinical work. We are, therefore, developing a strategy to enable vets to take a relocation break during quieter periods.

Based at another practice, they can provide cover to help prevent any staffing issues during the summer, while also learning skills relating to species or farming systems they are not usually exposed to.