Making a health plan

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Vet articles - Credit: None

Pete Siviter talks to fellow vet Caroline Robinson about the benefits of making a health plan for your livestock. Caroline is a veterinary consultant and specialises in this area

Hereford Cattle Society

Hereford Cattle Society - Credit: None

Health plans are sometimes an overlooked aspect of the smallholding, but in this article we’re going to explore how they can be used to make your life easier. These were the questions I put to Caroline.

Q: What is a Veterinary Health Plan?

A: At the minimum, a good health plan is a document to help you prevent disease in your animals and should be built around good welfare. It should give you a framework for the treatments, management items and risk factors throughout the year, and outline necessary procedures to maintain biosecurity (i.e. reduce the risk of disease introduction), such as quarantine treatments of new animals.

A thorough health plan may also, if you are confident with basic injecting, dosing and husbandry techniques, give you a ‘decision tree’ of what to do in specific common disease, injury or birth situations, depending on whether your vet considers this to be suitable for you and your holding. If you have persistent lameness issues, for example, then, as an adjunct to (not a replacement for) regular veterinary care, the vet may input a ‘first line’ treatment for you into your plan, with a note to call the vet for further treatment if this ‘first line’ recommended treatment has not worked.

Further benefits might include noting down information which can help you to make the right breeding choices, improve your productivity and finances, or allow you to compare and share management techniques with other members of your breed club. This ‘benchmarking’, as it is known, against others or against a breed or industry standard, can also help you to identify any disease or welfare issues which are not obvious to the naked eye.

Q: What are the day-to-day benefits of having a plan like this?

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A: Ultimately, health planning is always likely to benefit welfare and decrease stress (often in both animals and owners). It can be a valuable tool for learning and improving, and will reduce the risk of an unforeseen disease situation – something I hear stories of all too often from smallholders at free education and discussion evenings around the country. Even longstanding, happy and successful holdings can be at great risk if there is no biosecurity and health plan in place to try to deflect that bolt from the blue. In a century which has already seen problems with foot and mouth disease, tuberculosis, bluetongue, Schmallenberg virus and avian influenza affect the farming and smallholding community, on top of the usual yearly considerations of worms, fluke, management and other endemic diseases, a health plan can go a long way to keep your holding as safe and stress-free as is possible.

Q: How would a smallholder go about getting a proper Veterinary Health Plan?

A: Firstly, and most importantly, is the step that some smallholders miss out, leading to a slightly disappointing plan which does not quite fulfil all the needs you have. A health plan starts with YOU. As vets, we plan a lot for commercial farmers, who often have predictable aims – good welfare, good product and good returns (among others, of course). However, smallholders can have many diverse aims and wishes for their holding.

Before you call the vet, think about these simple questions:

- What is the purpose of your holding? The answer might be meat, eggs, milk, fibre, lifestyle/hobby, superstar show animals, sustainable living…

- What are the most important things for you in your life and on your holding - are you looking for profit and added value/business interests, or is your priority quality of life, a connection with the earth or more time spent with family working together outdoors? Note down the things you value most.

- What would your ‘ideal holding’ look like or produce? Health plans can be fluid, changing with you as you grow.

Taking some time to answer these questions, and writing down the answers, either as a statement paragraph for the first page of your health plan, or just as bullet-points to assist your focus during the planning meeting with your vet, will make sure that you end up with a plan that is tailored to you. You cannot work with a health plan that does not fit with your whole reason for smallholding in the first place. Of course, you must keep your aims reasonable and within the bounds of good welfare – you cannot declare ‘no chemicals of any kind’ to your vet, when your animals may need worming, fluke treatments or antibiotics just to keep them alive and healthy. However, you can say ‘we would like to plan our holding around sustainable practice, minimising the use of medicines and chemicals where possible within the bounds of good welfare’. Worm egg counts on animal faeces can be planned, instead of routine regular worming, for example. Good grazing management can reduce the need for treatments. Rigorous examination and quarantine of bought-in stock can be carried out instead of treating the whole group for any footrot or parasites accidentally carried in.

Secondly, health planning should be carried out in conjunction with your vet. There are some basic ‘templates’ online, but unfortunately our climate means that dates for management, treatments and risks are not necessarily transferrable from north to south, east to west, from hill to lowland. You need someone who can consider all your species together, rather than separately (some species can affect the treatments of others – something you will not easily find online), your geographic location, and the prevalence of certain problems this year depending on climate, soil type or current disease situation in the UK. You won’t get the same benefit from a really basic template as you would from a proper plan for your personal holding, which can discourage people if they have initially tried this ‘one size fits all’ approach and struggled.

Thirdly, your relationships with other people can also help add value to your plan – your breed club, for example, if you decide to include ‘benchmarking’ or production data in your yearly plan for your farm. This may be able to tell you how well you are doing compared to most breeders, or farm business consultants, rural colleges such as Scotland’s Rural College or local farmers might be able to provide you with commercial data to evaluate whether your holding is as profitable as it should be. You might collaborate with another local holding to try to time planned treatments or scanning together, to reduce costs. Does your local vet perhaps have a smallholder club where your health plans can be tweaked to arrange for such extra help for each other at key times, or reduced costs? If not, might you organise one and get your local vet involved?

Lastly, what will the plan look like? Sit down with your records, and your ‘aims’ document, with plenty time. Remember that a health plan needs to be updated annually to change with the national situation, the successes and failures of last year, new medical or husbandry advances and changes to your management or stock.

MORE: Caroline Robinson works at SAC Consulting Veterinary Services and is based at Scotland’s Rural College.

Working from 26 consultancy offices and eight veterinary disease surveillance centres, more than 375 consultants, veterinarians, technicians and support staff offer advice and assistance on a wide range of issues.