Owen Atkinson publishes his report for The Trehane Trust on the role of the vet in knowledge transfer in the dairy industry

I am a vet who has worked in farm animal practice since qualifying, mainly with dairy cows. 
Born in Derby in 1971, I began my professional life in 1994 with my first post in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, before moving on to work at the University of Liverpool teaching farm animal veterinary practice, and then Wrexham in North Wales. With my wife, Laura, and three children, Dylan (8), Jude (6) and Lola (3), I have now settled in Cheshire where I am a partner in a large farm-only vet practice, Lambert, Leonard and May, which is part of the XLVets group of practices. 
My interests in rumen health, cattle foot care and lameness reduction have led me to do an increasing amount of training and advisory work. In 2007, I became a fully qualified CowSignals trainer. CowSignals asks the cows what they think of their management and environment and uses this information to devise improvements, always seeking to implement the “success factors” which lead to happy and profitable dairy farms. This approach complements the environmental approach to cow health which I believe is far more important than reliance on medicines and supplements: strong, fit, happy cows stay healthy, and strong, fit, happy cows result from providing a suitable environment. 
My goal is to help farmers make changes on their farms which benefit the cows, the quality of life and the bank balance.
My roots are in farming, but I always enjoyed science at school and so became a vet. 
Herein lies one of the interesting facets of my study: vets generally like science and place high value and pride in knowledge.  We perhaps undervalue the importance of communication in our roles as health professionals.  Yet having the knowledge without the ability to communicate it is like having a computer without a screen – useless. 
So where did my interest in the role of the vet in knowledge transfer in the dairy industry arise?  
I qualified as a vet in 1994, in times of high milk (and quota) prices.  This was quickly followed by the BSE crisis, and a sustained period of tough economic times and poor morale in the dairy industry (at least at the production end, in which I work).  Unlike other comrades at vet school who were also enthusiastically intent on becoming a farm vet, I haven’t been lured away by the glamour of emptying dogs’ anal glands, gone into industry, emigrated to New Zealand or switched to the dark side of horse medicine.  So I am still a farm vet in practice – what I always wanted to be – but which could arguably make me one of the dumbest members of my class. 
During my career in practice, there has been a huge shift in the way vet practices operate in the UK.  A significant rationalisation has resulted in far fewer “mixed” vets and more specialisation, and there has been a sustained downward pressure on medicine prices, and changes in supply.  Inevitably, those farm vets who wish to survive have to move away from traditional over-reliance on medicine sales supporting their fee-work.  As a partner in Lambert, Leonard and May Farm Vets, I suppose I have played a role in this change.  Our practice began in 1999 as a farm animal only practice, and introduced lower medicine prices and a more realistic fee structure.  This model has now been replicated in many parts of the UK.  A practice like ours can have a very specific focus on servicing only farmers’ needs which gives us a competitive edge – just don’t come to us with your poorly cat; you’d be as well asking for advice from the postman for all we know about such creatures.  
We have a client base of largely business-minded farmers, mainly dairy (we are in the Cheshire/Shropshire dairy belt), and we provide a predominantly preventive health service – or at least that is our aim.  It is the fact that we still have to deal with so many preventable conditions (scouring calves, high mastitis rates, too many lame cows, thin cows not getting in calf, displaced abomasum after displaced abomasum), that leads us to be very self critical.  If we were doing our job even half well, surely we wouldn’t be so busy treating sick animals and fire-fighting?  So how can we do our job better?  What are the bottlenecks to bringing about effective change on farms?  It isn’t that we don’t have enough knowledge, so what else is missing? 
This is what brought me to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship: as my wife would describe it, a naïve conviction that I can make some difference to the way we do things. 

Read the full report here