What are the realities of being a farm vet today?

Written by: Vet Times Jobs
Published on: 12 Sep 2023


Image © jackienix / Adobe Stock

With less than 5% of veterinary graduates anecdotally choosing a farm career, we’re in a critical period. The farm vet industry needs to think about how to support and accurately represent the profession. Only then can we ensure we continue to deliver improved farm animal welfare and champion the farmers who feed our nation.

Ian Cure and Ami Sawran tell us what being part of the farming industry means to them, and why they believe it offers highly rewarding and satisfying career opportunities.

Why do you think fewer graduates are looking to become farm vets today?

Ian Cure: “A few reasons exist – one being that fewer students are getting the chance to go on farm for EMS because fewer specialised practices exist now.

“With the RCVS dropping EMS requirements from 26 to 20 weeks, I worry this could further reduce people’s exposure to experience farm practice work. At VetPartners we are working with Harper Adams University to establish how we can improve graduate rotations on farm, which will hopefully provide some solutions, but as an industry we need to improve the openings for new grads to understand what real life farm work is like.

Ian Cure

“Another potential factor is out-of-hours work – which is a constant challenge, but one we all want to improve. While it doesn’t appeal to everyone, OOH work has a role to play in giving experience in dealing with emergencies. We recognise we need to give vets this vital experience, but also provide desirable working hours.

“I also feel fewer students become farm vets because of outdated and negative stereotypes that have been carried from previous generations. I feel this is unfair to the current farming industry, which has advanced in so many ways.

“Yes, farm vetting carries huge pressure at times, but what job doesn’t? Our recent Farm Vet Academy pilot showed that on-farm experience was a huge factor in changing perceptions of the realities of the job. The academy gave final-year vet students the chance to experience a range of sessions, including practical experience of handling animals on-farm, as well as clinical simulations, such as calving a neoprene uterus.

“We heard anecdotally that all attendees wanted to become farm vets by the end of the course, whereas we started the week with many of them ‘on the fence’ about it.

“The host farmers explained that they saw the benefit of helping develop young vets. In their eyes, the experience added up to helping make better vets at a time when we need more of them.”

Ami Sawran: “As Ian says, misunderstandings about working in farming may exist. After 12 years as a farm vet, while economic pressure remains constant, I can safely say our farmers are welfare focused, willing to listen and making strides we can be proud of.

“The industry should be reassuring new potential entrants that we have made huge progress in improving work life, remuneration, team well-being and career development.

“A lot more variety exists in the role these days – it is faster moving than people may expect, plus you are part of a bigger picture. For example, we have adapted post-Brexit to ensure the security of our export market and we remain on the front line of animal disease outbreak responses alongside emergency, routine and preventive health care.”

Where do you think farm vetting makes the most impact for your clients today?

Ami Sawran: “We are hyper-aware of economic factors facing our farm clients. They are under great pressure to provide quality produce in the face of increasing overheads and poorer returns. Therefore, we must ensure that the recommendations we make deliver the best value for money while keeping animal welfare at the forefront of our decisions.

“For example, from collaborating with farmers and vets focusing on preventive health care and welfare-centric breeding decisions, we can see improved lambing or calving rates with minimal intervention, which in turn improves herd productivity and profitability for the farmer.

“More broadly speaking, we have worked together with farmers to achieve a massive reduction in antibiotic use in livestock and we are facilitating funding programmes targeted specifically at improving animal health and welfare.

“Many of our achievements within the industry are worth celebrating.”

Ian Cure: “I recently looked at 15 years of income streams and saw that we started with farm client bills being invoiced 50:50 in terms of preventive and therapeutic treatments.

“This split today has now swung to 80:20 preventive:therapeutic because more of our time is spent, for example, on fertility visits and health planning rather than time previously spent on calving and lambing. Actions such as looking at feeding and housing to improve transition cows, and vaccination to prevent rather than cure disease, all add up to better welfare outcomes and productivity.

What is it that you enjoy the most about your role personally?

Ami Sawran: “At Westpoint Vets in Chelmsford, we work with a lot of commercial beef and sheep farm clients, as well as many smallholders and companion or pet farm animal owners. Though they all face commercial and economic challenges, they remain hugely passionate about their animals; farmers love to see them thriving and want to work in a positive atmosphere.

Ami Sawran
Ami Sawran BVSc, CertAVP(CP), PGCertVPS, PhD, MRCVS

“I personally enjoy going on farms for health reviews, to be able to say in person to our clients this improvement – for example, better hygiene, evidenced in lower bacterial readings or lowered calf mortality rates – is testament to the farmer-vet collaboration and the hard work that farmers and stockpersons have put in, having listened to veterinary advice. That relationship you have with farmers does not end when you leave the farm – it is much more of a long-term, consultative and preventive-based relationship.”

Ian Cure: “I started work as a farm vet nearly 20 years ago and the reasons I enjoyed my role then are the same as they are now – because you have regular relationships with clients, you are working in a practical environment outdoors and you are doing work that is preventive.

“You are supporting farmers with planning for better health and productivity in animals – not just seeing sick ones.”

What is it like working with farm clients?

Ami Sawran: “I love working in an industry that has such passionate people at its heart. Farmers have such a depth of knowledge that they are always happy to share. They often remain open to new ideas and adapting with the times, which we don’t always give them credit for. Farmers, in my experience, are very supportive of students and young vets – they know that investing time with them benefits the industry because it will improve the quality of future farm vets.

“It is a community we get a lot out of connecting with. We have sessions such as our calf rearing group meetings that give us the chance to get together socially with dairy farmers and calf rearers to work collaboratively to improve the welfare of calves before they are even born. Not only can improvements made from recommendations in groups like these be celebrated by all, but this opportunity to be social plays a big part in keeping communities connected and farmers feeling less isolated.

“Enthusiasm is infectious; when I see that clients are driven by and interested in our initiatives, it rewards our team’s effort. This means we have a happy workforce who know that their work means something, and that opportunities to develop professionally exist.

“My team is empowered to help the business and to suggest improvements – this means members are more likely to give us feedback (both positive and constructive), or if they want to change tack in their careers, which all really helps us as employers.

“This positive momentum here in the Chelmsford practice has led to us being able to change what we do to the extent that we have altered our business model and expanded our premises and service offering.”

What is the one thing you would say to people thinking about becoming a farm vet?

Ami Sawran: “It is a job not only enjoyable from a practical and sociable standpoint, but also you are part of an industry that is the most responsible for simultaneously upholding animal and public health. In a farm vet practice, you have the unique opportunity to build a community around you by supporting your clients and bringing them together. Your potential impact is enormous.”

Ian Cure: “Why wouldn’t you consider doing a job that gets you outside and keeps you physically active? It is a fantastic benefit of the job that you work with people who you end up calling your friends as well as them being your clients.”