Cumbrian farmers are increasingly calling on a new type of service to help with essential tasks – the Vet Tech.

Vet Techs are trained to carry out jobs such as vaccinations, stress-free disbudding, blood testing, worm egg counts and mobility assessments.

The role is already well established in New Zealand and is now growing in the UK.

Paragon Veterinary Group, which has centres at Dalston, Newbiggin and Wetheral in north Cumbria, is among the first to pioneer the use of Vet Techs as part of their team.

Paragon Farm Vet Lead Philip Wilkinson says: “We decided to introduce Vet Techs because we saw a need for them from clients.

Paragon Veterinary Surgeon Philip Wilkinson

“It allows farmers to have someone come in and do a job at a more manageable cost, allowing vets to focus on the more specific veterinary services.

“By providing this service we take responsibility for ensuring these jobs get done and are done properly – for example our Vet Techs will ensure that a calf is given the correct amount of vaccine and that the vaccine is stored properly before it goes into the calves. It takes the worry and the problem off farmers’ shoulders.”

Philip worked in New Zealand for 18 months where Vet Techs have been integral to farming for around 10 years. 

“In New Zealand it’s very popular,” he said. “The practice I worked in there had six or seven Vet Techs. It’s more of a recent development in this country, but it is growing.”

Richard Harrington runs 180 pedigree Holsteins at Birdshill Farm at Raughton, near Dalston.  He has been using Paragon’s Vet Techs for two years.

“I use them to dehorn calves and we would never go back to the way we used to do it. It’s brilliant,” says Richard. 

“The whole farming sector struggles for staff. The way the Vet Techs do the disbudding is stress-free for the animals, they don’t even know it’s being done. 

“It comes at a cost, but you still have to value your own time if you were doing it yourself.

“The Vet Techs can do a batch of 15 or 18 calves in about three quarters of an hour. If I was doing it, it would take me all afternoon. I would recommend them to anybody.”

The increased popularity of Vet Techs – who work under the supervision of veterinary surgeons - is partly being driven by new requirements from milk buyers, such as for animals to be disbudded at less than three weeks by a suitably trained person, and for ongoing herd lameness assessments by registered mobility scorers.

Karen McNeil and Emily Tinning are Vet Techs with Paragon, and both come from farming backgrounds.

Vet Techs for Paragon Vets (left) Karen McNeil and Emily Tinning

Karen, who is 37 and lives in Kirkbampton, jumped at the chance to become a Vet Tech in June last year, and began going out with the practice’s team of large animal vets, learning on the job.

“There isn’t one aspect of the job that I don’t enjoy,” she says. “I like being out and about on the farms and it is rewarding doing something of benefit to farmers and that they appreciate.”

Karen’s dad was a dairy farm worker, and her husband Richard is herdsman at Blencogo House farm.  After a spell working in admin Karen milked on a dairy farm before joining Paragon, and she still helps out at the farm.

One of the regular tasks is disbudding, which Karen and Emily do after a vet sedates the calf and administers a nerve block. 

“We do disbudding on a weekly basis,” says Karen. “Most of the farmers say they would never go back to the old way of doing it themselves. 

Vet Tech Emily Tinning performing a disbudding of some calves

“It’s one of those jobs that farmers know they have to do, but it’s not always easy to fit in. 

“Also, the way we do it is stress-free so it doesn’t hold the calf back or knock them off their milk that day.  There’s no check in their growth rates. 

“I can do 20 in an hour on my own and me and Emily working together can do 40 in an hour.”

Another Vet Tech task is doing the paperwork for TB testing, while the vet carries out the tests. 

“A lot of farmers do it themselves but, for example, we have one big dairy farm with over 2,000 animals and they ask us to do it.

“We recently did TB testing over two days on the farm starting at 5.30am and finishing at 5.30pm. On a big farm we can just help to free things up.”

The Vet Techs’ work also includes taking blood samples, which they examine back at the Dalston surgery lab to find out if a calf has had sufficient colostrum.

“If a farm has a lot of different staff looking after the calves these tests can help to keep track of how the calves are doing and whether any changes need to be made to their management,” says Karen, who has taken a series of extra qualifications including passing her Farm SQP exam last year at Newton Rigg, which allows her to advise on and supply wormers and flukicides. 

She is also a ROMS accredited mobility scorer. 

The Vet Techs also administer the intra-nasal vaccine for pneumonia. 

Karen says: “We had a farmer who was getting quite a lot of pneumonia despite him periodically vaccinating. I said, we would visit, use and administer the same vaccine, but come regularly so we  know that it’s been done at the right age and to all the  calves, and see if we can make a difference. 

“He thought it probably wouldn’t work. But now he’s saying pneumonia has really reduced and we’re doing a really good job. It’s good to be able to make a difference to them.”

During Covid the Vet Techs have also come into their own, assisting the vets.  

Vet Tech Karen McNeil driving the Paragon van

“I have been going out with two of the vets in our bubble to help them do a caesarean so a farmer can stay socially distant,” says Karen. 

Being a Vet Tech has given her the opportunity to make a difference to both farmers and livestock, she says.

“I have always loved working around animals,” she says.  “My main passion is cows. I also have my AI qualification, and I have got some of my first calves on the ground.  

“My big thing is welfare. Cows deserve to be cared for.  I just enjoy everything about the job.”

Emily is 28 and lives in Gretna. She grew up on a dairy farm near Canonbie, and is married to Will, a beef and sheep farmer. 

She worked for an accountancy firm before joining Paragon Veterinary Group.  A friend told her about the new idea for a Vet Tech role at the practice.

“I thought, Oh god that’s literally what I would love to do,” says Emily, who has now been doing the job for four years.  

“I have been out this morning disbudding calves. It’s my favourite job. We have quite a few farms where we do all their disbudding – it just means the farmer doesn’t have to think about it. 

“The Vet Tech job is just to make the farmer’s life a bit easier, knowing there’s someone that’s going to regularly come and do these jobs and that we will do it properly and professionally.

“When I started, we were just putting out feelers to see if it would be something that farmers would need, and we didn’t know what the uptake would be. But it has worked really well.  A lot comes through word of mouth.”