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Building better relationships with farmers

30 July 2019, at 9:00am

How to develop rapport and improve means of communication with farm clients

In my experience, there is no such thing as a “typical farmer”. The traditional image of a middle-aged male in tweed and a flat cap doesn’t exist in many places anymore. So, there is no “typical” way to communicate with farm clients.

All businesses and people have very different aims and personalities that require a variety of approaches. Some want facts and science without fluffiness; some require a more gentle, holistic approach. Some farmers are money orientated whilst for others, time is more important. Knowing your audience and what outcomes they want is crucial for effective communication.

Equally, the James Herriot-styled “typical farm vet” is a thing of the past. Thankfully, we are now a very diverse community, and farm practice teams have a variety of personalities that should be utilised in the most appropriate way. There is a reason some farmers prefer some vets.

In this article, I am going to talk about my own approach and how I communicate with my own clients and many farmers across England about quite a touchy subject – bovine TB.

A modern approach

I have a friendly and understanding approach to farmers (or at least I hope and think I do!) I know sometimes this maybe doesn’t get an immediate effect with a farmer, but I build a relationship of trust and understanding, which I think gets the best results in the long term.

Long gone are the roles of “me vet, you farmer” and “I am right, you must do this”. As vets, we must work as a part of the farm team. Very often there is someone coming onto farm foot trimming, someone scanning and someone giving financial and planning advice. We must remember we are not the only ones trying to tell the farmer what we think would be best for their business. We need to put our advice into perspective and justify why we think the advice we are giving is relevant and necessary.

Before launching into what you want the farmer to do, ask them what else is happening on the farm. Let them talk first. You are a trusted professional and friend; they might just tell you about a financial situation or a staffing issue that might alter what parts of your plan you highlight, as they could help with something you might not otherwise have seen as relevant.

Keen, reliable staff are often hard to keep. Good staff want to progress. If a farmer speaks to you about their staff and a concern over someone, you could suggest they sit in on your conversation about Johne’s control. If they know why they are being asked to do something like separate certain cows at calving, they might just do it. They might be keen to attend some of the practice meetings or you could point them to sources of information to learn more. This is a “win, win, win” situation, as the farmer gets a job done better, the member of staff is engaged and you get your advice carried out!

We need to remember who we are communicating with and therefore what buttons will get the desired effect. The farm owner, for example, may want nothing but facts and figures; they might be more financially motivated or interested in long-term outcomes. The part-time worker on the other hand may want to know how much longer something will take them.

Explain why and how

One of the most important things I feel when communicating with farmers is to explain the “why and how”. Don’t just tell them you want them to do something without explaining why. My example is TB. I spend at least two days of my week trying to persuade farmers there is something they can do to reduce their risk of a TB breakdown.

I explain the sensitivity and specificity of the skin test and what implications that has when buying in. The changes in body language and facial expressions when they have this explained to them is phenomenal. You can almost see them thinking “Why has no one ever told us this before?” and “I get that now!” Then when we discuss the risk pathways on their farms, they can see that purchasing animals from herds without knowing when their last reactor was is a massive risk. Explaining the fact that TB bacteria can live for up to 60 days in water will help them see why you think raising water troughs to 1 metre can massively reduce the cattle/badger risk pathway.

Motivational interviewing

As a mother, I spend a lot of time persuading the children in my life that what I want them to do is their own idea! It was only recently that found out this has a name: “motivational interviewing”. The main skill is listening. Listen to what your client is telling you. Ask open questions, not closed ones. Ask “What do you think are your biggest calf issues?” not “Do your calves get scours?” Don’t let them just answer “yes” or “no”.

The main thing I learnt was not to approach a farmer with “So... those bloods we took off those calves, we found a BVD PI so we need to vaccinate; it’s only £5 per animal.” What the farmer has heard is that they have a disease called BVD (“I don’t know what that means for my business”), lots of acronyms and £5 per animal (“I am not made of money!”).

Instead, ask: “How are those calves doing we blood sampled last week? How much do you think that has cost you in time and money with the sick ones and losses?” Then explain what BVD is – in simple language; explain what BVD stands for and what a PI is. This works for all topics; for example, NVL in chats about TB, or what chronic lameness means. Just because we use terms like these all the time, don’t assume farmers know what they mean.

Hopefully the farmer will attribute time and money to the disease; hopefully they will ask you “What can I do about it?” and then you can tell them about the vaccine and £5 per head won’t seem so much, compared to the losses they will have worked out for themselves.

Making the solution happen

Finally, make the solution happen. Don’t just tell someone what to do; help them work out how to make it happen. When talking about TB to farmers, my biggest bugbear is when they are told to cleanse and disinfect. What does that actually mean?

In this situation, I would explain that they need to remove all the muck, sweep out the pen and hose out (for TB – a respiratory disease – the last thing you should use is a steam cleaner) and then wash the walls, floors and troughs out with disinfectant.

You can then discuss which disinfectants they have available to use and what dilution rate to use – so if it needs to be at a dilution of 1:20, explain that this means 1 litre of disinfectant to 20 litres of water – don’t assume they will work it out; make things easy for them.

After a diagnosis of Cryptosporidium and prescribing preventative medicine at birth, discuss how that could happen in practice – and don’t forget to include the person that will actually be doing the dosing. They might think what you and the boss have decided is not practical, in which case, it won’t get done. Ask them how they could make it work. If you discuss the disease and the epidemiology, they hopefully will pick up on the hygiene parts of the preventative plan themselves, so they are more likely to have buy-in.

This is my approach; it may not work for every farmer or every vet, but like I say to farmers when talking about TB, “I just want to make you think about things a bit differently."

Practical guidance on dealing with TB can be found on the TB Advisory Service website.

Sarah Tomlinson, BVM&S, MRCVS, has worked at Westpoint Farm Vets in Ashbourne for eight years. She is a member of the TB Eradication and Advisory Group for England and was part of the technical team that successfully bid for the RDPE funding to run the TB Advisory Service. Sarah communicates with farmers on bovine TB on a daily basis.

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