While no-one would argue that a veterinary practice is anything other than a business, farmers have a natural respect for those who are primarily motivated by an interest in animal health.
That focus on health above all else is perhaps reflected in the commitment that sees some practices take up the challenge of providing TB testing for cattle despite the far-from generous returns it offers.
It was that commitment that saw the Cliffe Veterinary Group join forces with three other practices to set up XL Farmcare South East to bid for – and win – responsibility for carrying out testing across the region.
In government terms, the South East covers 17 counties, which means the testing is sub-contracted to a network of 35 practices, including the team at the Cliffe Veterinary Group itself.
While it’s a responsibility some practices have turned down, director Nick Pile believes vets have a wider duty to farms and farm animals – and it’s a commitment that has also helped drive the growth of the farm department at Cliffe Veterinary Group.
“A number of primarily beef and sheep farmers have joined us since we have visited them to carry out TB testing, and it’s always interesting to meet and talk to a wide range of people in the industry, “ Nick explained.
He believes the growth in the farm department reflects the fact that farmers are increasingly recognising the benefits offered by a local, independent practice with a wealth of on-farm experience that stretches back more than 150 years.
There has been a veterinary practice at the partnership’s home in Lewes since 1865, adding a sense of history to the professionalism, client focus and dedication that Nick believes sets Cliffe Veterinary Group apart today.
“Clearly in 1865 the practice was purely for farm animals, and while over the years it has diversified to take in domestic animals and a thriving equine business, we are seeing a strong resurgence in farm work,” Nick explained.
The practice’s location at the foot of the South Downs means it has a thriving beef and sheep practice as well as dairy work, while the equestrian business at nearby Harbens Farm, Laughton, boasts a surgery and a specialist equine dental technician in the shape of Penny Brownings.
While Nick has worked with the 17-strong practice for seven years, fellow director Bill Pepper joined in 1990 just before the merger that saw the firm take on in its current form.
The merger involved a well-respected Lewes practice which included Bill Pepper’s father Robin, whose name can still be seen on some of the potions and packets kept on display for their historic value.
While Bill Pepper’s inspiration was his father, Nick’s career was inspired by Bill, although the older man wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Nick’s dad Martin has a dairy herd, farming with his brother Phil at Court House Farm, Beddingham, just outside Lewes. “One of my early memories is seeing Bill lying on the floor in the cowshed working hard to sort out a calving problem for my father,” he recalled. “That was when I decided I wanted to become a vet.”
After studying in Edinburgh and working up north, Nick came home to Sussex in 2009 to join Cliffe Veterinary Group and work alongside the man who had inspired his choice of career.
Farm directors Nick and Bill head up a team completed by vets Nanja Verkuijl, Claire Thorpe and Robert Timos, who is also the practice’s dedicated TB tester. Laura Bland and Mark Bacon spend some of their time looking after small animals but are drafted into the farm team at busy times.
“We try to make sure that the client sees the same vet each time so that they can build up a relationship and work together for the benefit of the farmer,” Nick explained. “We want to provide a more personal service.”
The group’s equine practice tends to run essentially independently and is staffed by an eight-strong team headed up by Karl Holliman and Egbert Willems, a specialist in sports horse medicine and rehabilitation.
The well-equipped equine clinic at Laughton has an impressive range of diagnostic facilities and Penny Brownings’ specialist equine dental skills are regularly sought by clients of other practices.
Practice manager Karen Walker is at the hub of this dynamic partnership, which is expanding geographically as well as picking up new clients, particularly on the farm animal side. Bill Pepper heads up the XL Farmcare South East operation as well as playing his part in the day-to-day veterinary work.
Although the practice values its independence, it is a member of XL Vets, a collection of 50 similar businesses across that country that collaborate on issues such as training, management resources and knowledge sharing and also operates as a buying group.
“Being a part of XL Vets gives us better buying power and access to a valuable database of information and opinion, but without restricting our ability to make our own clinical decisions,” explained Nick. “We can keep our clients’ costs down by buying some products at a more competitive price, but if we feel the situation calls for a different treatment, we have the freedom to use it.
“Some of the larger corporate veterinary practices have perhaps lost the close vet-client relationship and the independence that allows them to prescribe the right product rather than the cheapest. At Cliffe we are driven by our customers and by our commitment to the welfare of their animals.”
As well as the focus on beef, sheep and dairy work, Cliffe Veterinary Group has some pig, goat and alpaca clients who keep the seven farm vets busy.
As part of a broadening range of services, Cliffe Veterinary Group also provides bull fertility testing, with Nick comprehensively trained in this area.
“Uptake over the past three years has been encouraging, and since this is not a facility that all practices provide, I am happy to accept referrals from those that don’t offer their own service,” he said.
Herd health planning is an important part of the team’s focus, and a new ‘calf tracker’ scheme is playing a vital role in collecting data on birth weight, weaning weights, pneumonia and scour rates. “The aim is to provide information to help us work with the farmer to boost calf health and increase growth rates,” said Nick.
With the calf tracker scheme now up and running, Claire Thorpe is introducing a ‘flock health club’ with a similar focus on performance management based on collecting data and setting up health plans. This scheme includes a quarterly meeting to discuss ways of boosting productivity.
“Cliffe Veterinary Group is committed to animal welfare and to helping farmers maximise the returns from their investment,” said Nick. “We want to work closely with our clients to help their animals stay healthy and contribute to their business, not just look after them when they are sick.”