Sally Wilson is a DairyCo trained mobility mentor who helps dairy farmers tackle welfare issues and promote a positive and professional image by being ‘proud of dairy’. She finds the work tremendously satisfying
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AS a student, doing my stint with a traditional equine vet, I grew accustomed to hearing his favourite saying: ‘no foot, no horse’. This old adage is, of course, well-founded common sense and can equally be extended to other species. The very first time I set foot on my first dairy farm when seeing farm practice, I knew that I wanted to be a dairy vet. Fresh-faced and naive, with absolutely no farming background or experience, I thought I could change the world if I set my mind to it. I was therefore amazed at how accepted lameness was. Lame cows were simply part of the furniture and raised no comment at all.
Looking back, it was even more worrying when, as a young, recently qualified vet, spending day after exhausting day on an exponential learning curve, scanning, calving, dehorning, castrating, I suddenly realised that I wasn't noticing lame cows either. After an amazingly short period of time, I had become desensitised and, already, was automatically ignoring the signs. Nowadays, with a lot more experience of dealing comfortably with farmers, I have the confidence to allow myself to feel some compassion for cows that are struggling, and can tell a farmer when I think that a foot needs picking up, or that a cow should be euthanased. I no longer worry that he may think I'm soft but, as a new vet, this wasn't so easy.
As my career developed, I became interested in dairy cow fertility and I admit that lameness didn't really float my boat. When I attended training for the DairyCo Healthy Feet Programme, it was not an interest in the subject matter that attracted me I attended the course for two reasons:
■ Lameness is a major example of failure in dairy cow welfare – and ‘welfare’ is a prominent red-flag issue;
■ As the proprietor of a fairly young farm practice, I wanted to make sure that we held our own with availability of services for our clients. I also quite fancied having the title ‘mobility mentor’.
My attitude, however, had changed completely by the end of the training. In fact, I came away quite a foot enthusiast.
The thing about feet is that it is actually fairly easy to quite speedily produce good results. The stumbling block is getting farmers to recognise that they have a problem in the first place – and this is where the programme helps, by getting the farmer to see his cows as they are: lame.
I have now run the DairyCo Healthy Feet Programme on a number of my farms. It can be difficult, initially, to persuade farmers to accept that there is room for improvement but, once you get that across, you're on your way. My advice would be not to overlook the herdsman, as he can be key. Generate some enthusiasm in him, get him to take responsibility for improving his cows' feet, make it his project and you are more than 50 per cent there.
Another skill I learned from the training (and one in which I admittedly still need practice) is the ability to enable the farmer to identify the problem himself – and then to lead him (unobtrusively) to his own conclusion. A farmer who decides on a plan of action on his own is more likely to instigate that plan than if the vet decides for him. When you achieve this, the feeling of satisfaction is immense . . . until, of course, it becomes obvious that the farmer gives you absolutely no credit, and is convinced that he could have got there without you! This could suggest that you are doing your job too well.
My favourite day is the ‘identifying lesions day’ because, although initially treated with cautious suspicion, it is eventually the day the farmer enjoys the most. He is asked to sort out a number of cows for trimming and some lame cows for examination, and then to carry out whatever action/treatment he thinks is necessary while the mobility mentor looks on and advises. I never cease to be amazed at the amount of improvement achieved during this one day and, as a result, have carried the practice into my normal routine visits. Now, whenever I am presented with a lame cow, I suggest that the farmer himself picks up the foot while I merely offer advice on treatment. This works really well as it is building his skills for the future.
Healthy Feet has helped me to score a big success on one of my farms where, although the farmer was determined to do all the feet in his 300-cow herd, the herdsman was just as determinedly disinterested. Lame cows would be written up on the board by the owner, only to be rubbed off, unexamined, by the herdsman. Since I ran the Healthy Feet programme on the farm, that same herdsman now locomotion-scores the entire herd once a month. He sends us the results, and we plot them on a graph and produce a short report on the progress achieved. Furthermore, his lifetime aim is now to reduce the lameness prevalence to zero – and he's getting there.
The course also produced a welcome spin-off for the farmer who had, for some time, been showing a marked lack of enthusiasm for his farm. On the last day of the Healthy Feet visit, enthusiasm was returning sufficiently to enable us to chat about the farm's potential and – result – he told me last week that he is planning a new parlour, slurry pit and shed. While this turnaround obviously cannot be attributed solely to the Healthy Feet programme, I firmly believe that improving the lameness, while simultaneously injecting some enthusiasm into his herdsman, helped him to reach his decision to continue to develop his farming business – and that is definitely mobility mentor job satisfaction.