Livestock sector offers many and varied careers


We take a look at five different careers within the Livestock sector. By Tim Relf.


Growing up in Cheshire where there were "wall-to-wall dairy cows" - and with family connections with farming - it was no surprise that Jonathan decided to become a vet.

"Even when I was at primary school, I wanted to be a vet - and specifically a cattle vet," says Jonathan, who is a partner in the Bishopton Veterinary Group.

He graduated from Cambridge vet school in 1996, did general practice work in Thirsk for two years - "on the hallowed ground of James Herriot country" - then 13 years ago moved to focus on cattle.

"I feel massively lucky to be doing what I'm doing. You're working with an incredibly important industry," says Jonathan, who particularly enjoys forging long-term working relationship with farmers.

"As well as sharing the disappointment and adversity, you can see long-term developments come to fruition, like breeding programmes, health improvements, production improvements and, ultimately, improvements to the farm's bottom line. That's really special."

Jonathan reckons good communication skills are a key attribute for any would-be vets.

"It's all about asking questions and listening in a bid to find the most effective solutions to a herd's problems. It's about gathering information and finding out what is the best fit for the individual farm."

It is a popular career (not least due to its portrayal in books and on TV). "You've got to be committed to it because it's not a 9-to-5 job - it's a lifestyle. Weekends and nights are part of it."

"You need a commitment to care - and not just for animals, but also for the people and businesses you work with."

The profession's popular nature also means there is a lot of competition to get into it and the required academic qualifications are high. Anyone considering studying in this field must, he says, be aware of the cost of study and the "significant" amount of debt they're likely to acquire.

He recommends youngsters get some experience about what the job will entail. "Do some time at a practice to see what it'll actually involve.

"Every time I deliver a live calf from a really good cow, I still get a buzz from that."

CHRIS PADGET, assistant herdsman 

Working with animals, being out in the fresh air and the countryside and often working independently with high level of responsibility.

There are just some of the many great things about working as a relief milker and/or herdsman, says Chris Padget.

"You also keep fit, get to use loads of 'boys toys' and have a high level of job satisfaction," he adds.

Three years ago, Chris was working in an office job and was desperate for a change. He had first been bitten by the dairying bug spending childhood holidays on a farm in Devon. "I was fascinated by animals and, being an urbanite, coming close to cows was an exciting novelty and I still get that buzz today."

He "took the plunge", quit the job, enrolled at Wiltshire College Lackham and has just achieved a degree in Animal Science and Management.

Alongside his studies, he worked in the college dairy unit, milking three afternoons a week to build up his practical base.

His big break came when Jane Lewis of Mile Elm Farm, Calne, offered him a relief role and later put him in touch with a beef farmer who needed a relief stockman for his Angus and pig enterprise.

Chris combined these jobs with his studies for 18 months before contacting LKL Services during the summer of 2010. He stepped up to a 500-cow herd and has since been out on many assignments around the UK (even being put in charge of dairies for short periods).

His career goal is to become a top UK herd manager and, meanwhile, is doing relief work. "It's an excellent way to learn as each farm does it slightly differently so you always come away with a new idea."

The days are varied and can involve everything from milking, feeding and treating health problems to building maintenance, calf care and liaising with farmers, nutritionists and vets.

"You need total cow dedication and commitment to the point of near-obsession to be a herdsman or relief milker," he says. "Everything in my world - from the phone to the pictures on the wall - goes "moo"!

"You also need to be reliable, able to follow a protocol and understand cows and how they behave. This means having animal-handling skills and the confidence to assert yourself."

A degree, he says, isn't required for entry-level dairy, but it certainly helps to have some practical experience. Working free-of-charge for a short time is one route.

"In terms of paid employment, an assistant herdsman can earn around £24k, combined with expense-free accommodation. This improves the longer you do."

The worst parts, he reckons, are the frozen 4.30am winter starts, parlour breakdown, dump buckets and the fact that cows can sometimes be frustrating.

"Three years ago I was an unhappy office monkey not really knowing where I was going and hating just about every minute of the working day. Today I take great pride in - and love - what I do, get a real kick out of being around the cows, and the future looks bright."

ALICE PETCH, shepherdess 

People sometimes say you can't get into farming unless your parents do it.

Not true, says 21-year-old Alice. "If you're keen enough, there are plenty of opportunities. Some farmers' sons and daughters don't want to follow their parents into the business - so this opens doors.

"My dad always says: If you want work, there's always work available in farming."

After studying a two-year foundation degree in Agriculture at Bishop Burton, which "gives you a lot of different options", Alice spent five months in Australia, then returned earlier this year and went self-employed.

Her job is varied: she works part-time for her dad who has a sheep farm, does shearing and other work elsewhere and also does arable work.

"I love it - it's really good fun and a good healthy lifestyle. I'd definitely recommend it. Careers advisers at schools need to be told that it's not all doom and gloom in agriculture. They often try to sway youngsters against farming. It shouldn't happen because you can make a living out of farming and have a good life."

Alice finds her chosen career very fulfiling - shearing is a highlight - "because you can the end result so clearly".

Seeing lambs go to market is also an enjoyable part of the job. "If they've got to a good weight and make a good price, there's a real sense of satisfaction."

Then only downside is that there are not that many other young people around. Often when I go to a farm, I meet people two generations above me. This isn't a problem - you can learn so much from them with all their experience - but it shows how it's going."

And the one attribute you need to work in the sheep sector?

"You've got to have lots of patience," reckons Alice. "There again, I grew up on a pig farm - and sheep are less awkward than pigs!"

GWYN WILLIAMS, auctioneer 

Gwyn Williams"I love nothing more than selling in the middle of a busy market - it's like a day off for me and I really enjoy myself."

So says Cheshire-based livestock auctioneer Gwyn who, when he's not ringside spotting the buyers' nods, winks and blinks, spends the remainder of his working week liaising between prospective vendors and purchasers. "There's a lot of groundwork to be done if I'm going to get the best price for someone's stock.

"If I know that a breeder has 20 Hereford cross heifers, ready for bulling, to sell then I'll do some canvassing and contact a few beef producers with suckler herds who I think may be interested. Drumming up business is essential to ensure that the seller realises the best possible price for their livestock."

When he's not chatting on the phone or wielding his gavel, you'll find Gwyn at his desk behind a mountain of paperwork. "Admin isn't so enjoyable and I dislike unravelling 'red tape' and dealing with rules and regulations.

Gwyn, who is the chairman of the Livestock Auctioneers Association, says that there's much more to being an auctioneer than people imagine."We have animal welfare standards to maintain and we have to comply with health and safety regulations too - there's plenty to keep us busy when it's not market day."

As far as skills and qualifications go, a knowledge of livestock and agriculture is essential. "A farming background is an advantage - you need to know about what you're selling and also the wider industry. Practical experience is important and certainly helps when sorting out post-sale problems, like heifers sold supposedly in calf that are then found to be empty, bulls that won't 'perform', cows that are sold as having sound udders, only for the vendor to find that one quarter is blind."

Couple this experience with qualifications - such as the Livestock Auctioneers Association's distance learning course - and a passion for the job, and you'll go far, according to Gwyn.

He says good salaries - between £30,000 and £35,000 - are there for experienced auctioneers in their 30s. "Many positions offer a basic salary plus commission. It really is one of those careers where the more you put in, the more you get out - both in terms of financial reward and job satisfaction."

STEVE PAUL, foot trimmer 

Steve Paul has been trimming cows' feet for nearly 30 years.

Originally a herdsman, he took himself off to Holland in the early 1990s, learnt the Dutch trimming method, came back, bought a crush for £2,000 and rest, as they say, is history.

He began by "driving into yards and knocking on doors" and now runs a Somerset-based business with three full-time staff.

The business sells foot-trimming supplies - everything from angle grinders to books on the subject - and Steve also gives talks and demos to farmers, students and other industry professionals.

"The best bit of the job is when people tell you that a cow with a problem has got better - and is giving more milk as a result. That gives you a real sense of satisfaction," he says. "The downside is that it's a dirty job as you're at the wrong and of a cow!

"The hours can also be long, although the actual work tends to be done between the milking man - after 8.00am and before 3.30pm.

"There's driving on top of that - although the better you get at this job, the less driving you probably have to do as you can get more customers within a relatively short distance of you.

"You do need to be physically strong, as you can be handling 40 or 50 animals a day. That means, incidentally, you can see £70,000 of stock go through your crush on some days!"

An important attribute is being able to talk to - and get on well with - farmers. "You have to have a friendly manner and be good at listening. A lot of the work is repeat business. Like a lot of work in the countryside, word-of-mouth recommendations are very important.

"My advice to anyone wanting to pursue this as a career is to remember the saying: Experience, experience and experience. It's also worth considering getting the relevant NVQ."

Steve reckons the foot-trimming industry will be increasingly regulated - a trend which, he says, is to be welcomed.

He advises those with an interest to get involved with the National Association of Cattle Foot Trimmers (NACFT), an organisation of which he was a founding member.

"It's not cheap to set yourself up in business because even the cheapest hydraulic crush can cost £12,000 (and then you've got to have a vehicle and all the tools), but there are definitely opportunities out there. A good foot trimmer can earn well in excess of £30,000 a year."

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