Vets working with farmers

Large-animal vets know that it can be a juggling act prescribing veterinary science to the people who know the animals best of all. They also know that striking the right balance can be extremely rewarding. By John Burfitt

It was a situation Dr Alan Guilfoyle recalls from his days as a young vet which provided a valuable insight into people living on the land and how they know their animals far better than town folk with their companion animals.

“There was an outbreak of anaplasmosis in a herd of cattle, and it was the wife of the station manager who could pick which beast was sick before anyone else,” Dr Guilfoyle says.

“She spent every day around the animals and just knew what was going on. It was a lesson for me that you always listen to the farmer. They may not know the science that we as vets do, but they do know the story, and it’s vital to listen to that story.”

Dr Guilfoyle has been working in the Clermont region of northern Queensland for almost 40 years. He is also the president of the AVA’s Australian Cattle Veterinarians group. He has a lot to say on the topic of Production Animal Medicine, the study of health in animal populations, and the development of programs for maintaining good health and quality of production.

The working relationship between the vet and the farmer in this process, he says, is crucial to achieving good outcomes for livestock on a farm.

“I sometimes talk about the iceberg effect—if you see a case and then another case, you have to consider how big the sub-clinical pattern is,” he explains. “If you then say to the farmer, ‘this means dollars to you’, they understand what that means in the bigger picture.

“Which is why vets and farmers need to find effective ways of working together. As vets, we can put the science in behind their observations and that can prove to be the best way to work. Keep the farmer talking about the situation and they will tell you what’s wrong with the animal. The vet’s job is to learn to run that conversation for all it’s worth by listening to the details.”

The relationship between the vet and the farmer is a topic Dr Peter Higgins from the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Sciences has been teaching for years. He works with the wisdom passed on to him by one of his mentors, noted veterinary academic Dr Tom Hungerford.

“Tom’s attitude was you as the vet must treat the farmer and production people of the land as equals, until proven otherwise,” Dr Higgins says. “You need to start off by asking what they think so you’re learning from them from the very beginning.

“To take a good history, shut up and listen before you do any kind of physical examination. It needs to be a collaborative approach, a two-way street.”—Dr Peter Higgins, School of Veterinary Sciences, University of Sydney

“Most of a good consultation is taking a good history—that’s 70 per cent of the diagnosis. To take a good history, shut up and listen before you do any kind of physical examination. It needs to be a collaborative approach, a two-way street.”

He then stresses, “But the veterinarian is the professional in this situation, so you have to drive the process towards a diagnosis and a treatment plan. It’s a matter of managing the people and the case to get it there.”

Dr Anthony Bennett has owned the Berry Vet Clinic on the NSW South Coast for 10 years. He says there is a different way of communicating with farmers that can make the job of the vet far easier.

“The two things I’ve noticed about dealing with farmers is they’re pretty quick to accept what you have to say, and they rarely ask how much surgery is going to cost and understand why surgery is so important,” he says.

“You can also cut through a lot of the mundane explanations as they already have a lot of information on board just from being on the land. For example, you don’t need to explain what a caesarean is as they have probably dealt with these many times before and just want the animal to be okay.”

The success of the relationship comes down to trust, and Dr Bennett explains that must be earned. “That’s a slow process and it’s a case that the farmer has to learn to trust you and your opinion,” he says. “Once they do—and that takes time—they accept your advice. But if you turn up wet behind the ears and start spouting details of what your professor at uni told you last year, you’re in trouble.”

The basics of professionalism, like being reliable, having an after-hours vet on call and being agreeable to work with, is what builds such relationships. “This is why you do need to know what you’re doing and to prove you’re someone they can trust to work with to take care of their stock,” says Dr Bennett.

Compliance is another point of difference between dealing with farmers and regular clients, notes Dr Chris Brown of Sydney’s Bondi Junction Veterinary Hospital and former host of the TV show, Bondi Vet. “When dealing with a farmer, you at least know your follow-up treatment will be done well as their animal-handling skills are usually brilliant,” he says. “It’s a matter of working with that person’s skills and involving them in your decision-making process, and with a farmer, you should be having that open conversation. Sometimes with the cat or dog owner, you worry if they will be able to get the ear drops in.”

One challenging aspect of dealing with some farmers, however, can be sorting through old folklore about treatments that are more imaginative than therapeutic. Among the wilder treatments the practitioners interviewed for this story recalled were to never castrate a bull during a full moon, insert garlic into a cow’s anus to relieve constipation, use kerosene for drenching and treat black leg with a mixture of garlic and turpentine.Ridicule or humiliation can never be the response, Dr Bennett insists. He says this is the opportunity to be the professional who has veterinary science on your side.

“This can be when you build trust, so it has to be a case of ‘softly, softly catchy monkey’ and gently point out that there are far better treatments these days,” he says. “Then you need to hope like hell what you have prescribed actually works, because as we all know, we can’t control every outcome!”

Adds Dr Guilfoyle, “This is when you need to know your stuff and know how to communicate that without ruining the dynamics of the relationship. You might have to talk them away from a treatment they have used for years, and as you work with them towards understanding what it is you’re doing, allow them the dignity of owning their own answer. That’s where trust is built from.”

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