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Taking an independent path

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Farm vet Jenny Hull never thought she would be setting up her own practice, but in January 2018 she opened Black Sheep Farm Health, to serve beef and sheep farmers in Northumberland.

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Becoming a vet had been my goal from an early age. After qualifying from the Royal Veterinary College, my original career plan was to become a good beef and sheep farm vet, and then at some point maybe join a partnership.

I began working in mixed practice at Alnorthumbria Vet Group, which at the time was independent. Over several years I migrated to working 100 per cent in farm practice. Looking back, I think anyone wanting to be a farm vet should just go straight into farm practice, and not bother trying to start off as a mixed vet. Being a farm vet is hugely rewarding, but is also hard work and definitely not a nine to five job.

I hoped one day to become a partner in the practice, but after a corporate takeover this was no longer an option. My working conditions changed and I was no longer happy in my day-to-day job; I began to look at other career options.

I considered permanent locum work, or becoming a pharmaceutical rep, but what I really enjoyed was being a farm vet, building relationships with clients, helping them to implement improvements and sharing in the satisfaction of seeing how the changes have made a difference to them and their livestock’s performance, production and welfare.

My CV

2007: Graduated from the Royal Veterinary College, London

2007 to 2017: Alnorthumbria Vet Group, Northumberland

2017: Locum farm vet

2018: Black Sheep Farm Health

I thought about setting up my own farm practice, and found a fellow vet to be my business partner. I had never imagined this would be my career path, but we’re in a rapidly changing industry and the opportunity to become a partner in an existing practice is quickly declining.

At first, the thought of setting up our own practice was scary. We were vets – we didn't know much about running a business

At first, the thought of setting up a practice was scary. We were vets – we didn’t know much about running a business.

We approached one of our contacts in XLVets for some advice and this set off a chain of events. Apart from plenty of encouragement, we received a lot of practical tangible support – from help with legal matters and employment law, to putting together cashflow forecasts for the bank manager. It also gave us access to the advantages of scale for purchasing.

Through XLVets’ network of independent practices, we’ve also had – and still have – a lot of moral and practical support.

We had several offers of financial assistance, but in the end were able to raise enough money through grants and by investing our savings into the new business.

There was lots of hard work and a lot of learning to be done on all aspects of running a business before we opened our doors for the first time on 8 January 2018.

Setting up and opening my own practice has definitely been the highlight of my career so far. I won’t forget the excitement of that first day of trading and signing up clients, and the transition into being a business owner.

I’m now one of three partners at Black Sheep Farm Health. It is almost wholly a beef and sheep practice. We currently have just one dairy client, and a few commercial goat herds.

There’s a lot of variety. No two days are the same. That’s what’s great about farm practice. But to have a successful business when working with these types of farms, we must be proactive – not just there to respond to emergencies and treat individual animals. All our clients have health plans in place and we carry out bull and ram breeding soundness examinations, trace element testing and fertility work. We’re in a low-risk bovine TB (bTB) area so there is very little TB testing to be done.

Brexit challenges us and the farmers we work with

UK beef and sheep farmers have some challenges ahead with the unknowns of Brexit, and its impact on livestock prices. I have challenges too – in convincing them of the need to change some of their farming practices to survive in the coming postsubsidised industry.

Further afield, I’ve been doing some consultancy for a large beef and sheep farm in Poland. Here, there are similarities to UK farms: a drive to improve performance, health and welfare and combat diseases such as fluke, bTB and pneumonia. But there are some big differences too because of the extreme temperatures. It’s been interesting to see a different perspective on farming. And I think there are opportunities to do more veterinary consultancy work abroad.

Back at the practice, if I’m not out on calls, I’ll be writing up health plans or writing articles for the veterinary and farming press. Now I’m a business owner, there’s also always work to do checking over accounts, VAT returns, printing bills, paying invoices and, most importantly of all, charting and deciding the destiny for my business.

I am also making time to finish my certificate in sheep health and production, something I had to put to one side while getting the business set up.

Getting more involved in the industry

Another highlight in my career was being nominated and elected onto the British Cattle Veterinary Association board in 2016. I enjoy being more involved with supporting the industry and feeding into policymaking. From there, I’ve had the opportunity to be the beef representative on the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance’s Antibiotics Target Taskforce, as well as being a member of the board of BVDFree England.

I’m happy to put myself forward and get involved in areas I feel passionate about. I am also a participant on several steering groups in XLVets, including the business team, where I am involved with a project helping other start-up practices.

As a new business owner, the work-life balance is a challenge – as is switching off at the end of the day. The weekends when I’m not on-call are sacred. I try to make the most of them, spending time with my husband and working with my own small flock of pedigree Zwartbles sheep. I enjoy sports – running, playing netball and women’s rugby.

What I like most about my job is freedom, ownership and responsibility

What do I like most about my job? Freedom, ownership and responsibility. I have really enjoyed starting up this new practice. Going forward, I want to continue to build it up as a successful independent farm practice and grow its reputation as a go-to place for proactive beef and sheep expertise.

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