Rob Drysdale, director of the Westpoint Veterinary Group, tells Andrew Watts how the veterinarian’s role has evolved over the past 10 years.
Food scares, the rise of the television foodie, tightening supermarket standards and pressure on the Government to raise standards of animal welfare have all helped to redefine the role of veterinarians on farm in the past decade.
The higher welfare standards demanded by society are, however, just one factor that has shaped the role of large animal veterinarians. During this period livestock producers have faced immense financial pressure, forcing many to review relationships with their veterinarian. While some producers choose to cut corners, others use the veterinarian’s experience and expertise to add value.
In 2000, UK farming had reached a nadir: average net farm incomes had fallen to £8,700 and the outlook was poor. For Rob Drysdale, however, this situation spelled opportunity and he established the Westpoint Veterinary Group.
From its origins in the South-East of England, Westpoint has grown to become the largest farm animal veterinary group in the UK with recognised specialities in dairy cow health, including the fields of mastitis and fertility, plus calf and young stock management.
“Reduced profitability has forced changes in the way we work with farmers,” says Mr Drysdale. “Many are now far more business minded than in the past and this has changed the nature of the relationship.”
This led to Westpoint developing a service-based approach which extends the role of the veterinarian, but also allows the farmer to forecast expenditure with greater accuracy as services can be estimated on a cost per litre or cost per head basis.
“Our intention is to demonstrate the value we add, rather than be seen purely as a cost. As vets we should be more involved in our clients’ business and now Westpoint vets are often seen as consultants on many of our farms. To be seen as integral to a farm business’s long-term future is immensely rewarding and an excellent motivator for the vets that work within Westpoint to work harder for our clients.”
At the centre of Westpoint’s success has been the development of the herd or flock health plan. Originally introduced to the UK by Unigate Dairies for its Marks & Spencer suppliers, the health plan has evolved from a tick-box exercise to become a key measure in appraising a unit’s performance.
“There are limitations on what we can do for a business, but we now get asked for views on the whole farm enterprise,” says Mr Drysdale. “Sometimes the manager is just looking for confirmation of what they already know, while at other times it’s a case of two heads are better than one.”
With 70,000 dairy cows under the care of Westpoint and a further 1,000 being added almost monthly – the Cumbria practice even has a waiting list of farmers wanting to join – staff retention and development is now key.
Each farm has two named vets so that suitable cover is always on hand. This is another example of how the service-based approach has delivered benefits. It has enabled Westpoint to forecast cashflow with accuracy, enabling it to expand in a sustainable manner.
“It costs £5-10,000 in the first year to train a graduate vet, but retaining their enthusiasm beyond that requires incentives and a clear career path. We need to meet these expectations if we’re to attract good graduates.”
So what do the next 10 years hold? Practices will certainly get bigger and make greater use of the internet. Westpoint has a clear strategy for growth based on charging a fair price for a fair service. Clients pay medicine prices based on the Westpoint-owned on-line store www.farmacy.co.uk with clients being positively encouraged to buy from this source.
As with all industries, changes to legislation will create opportunities, for example the re-classification of Leptavoid-H vaccine to POM-VPS will enable both farmers and veterinarians to further redefine supply routes, perhaps even in the future forcing farm vets to update their business model to stay competitive.
Mr Drysdale is enthusiastic about the future for the sector and is excited about the opportunities ahead. Having seen the industry come through tough times to once again be seen as an industry of the future, it is perhaps easy to see why.