That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with veterinary student, Heather King (22) from Co Armagh, in this week’s Student Focus. We discuss her farming roots, life-long desires to become a vet, student life at University of Nottingham and plans once she graduates.
“My family has been farming for four generations. My earliest memory of farming is when I was around 5/6, and my dad bought me three Hereford-cross heifer calves to rear on the bucket.
It sounds a bit cliché, but I have wanted to be a vet for as long as I can remember. I never considered doing anything else, to the point where I never even applied to a different course to study as I knew I would not go if it were not veterinary.
My dad was probably the main influence in this as he got me involved with farming and livestock from such a young age. Growing up, I could see how much love he has for it, and I suppose it rubbed off on me.
Dairy and sheep enterprise
I run a herd of Herefords under the Somerville prefix on our family farm, which my dad, Robert and my brother, William, also oversee the running of.
We have a dairy and sheep enterprise, but I established Sommerville Herefords in 2020. In total, we have 60 dairy cows, 20 replacement heifers, 10 Herefords and 60 ewes. In terms of breeds, we mainly have British Friesian dairy cows and then mule-bred sheep.
We milk around 60 cows on a year-round calving system. The cows run with a Hereford bull, and we rear a small number of Hereford-cross calves to about a year old and sell the others just off milk.
We AI heifers with sexed semen to keep replacement heifers coming on.
Besides, we lamb around 60 ewes to a Charollais tup starting in January. In 2020, I was home from university for over a year due to COVID, and I decided to buy some calves to rear on the bucket to give me something to keep me occupied.
I told my dad I was buying no more but having my own animals to look after sparked an interest in me again, and I decided then to buy a pedigree Hereford heifer and another one.
Then, I flushed the second heifer, and now my original bucket reared calves are carrying embryos. I hopefully have five pedigree calves coming this year starting in June.
They definitely give me plenty to worry about, and it is not always plain sailing, but when my first pedigree heifer calved in July last year, it was the best feeling in the world. I hope to show her calf this year at local county shows.
Even though lambing and calving seasons are probably the most labour intensive and stressful times, they are definitely the most rewarding for me. The sleepless nights are worth it when you see them all skipping around fields.
I am in year five of my veterinary medicine and surgery degree at University of Nottingham and will graduate in July 2022.
I enrolled in the course in 2017 and picked the University of Nottingham for their large animal side of the course.
The course is very practical, and we have a dairy centre and smallholding on-site, so we get lots of hands-on experience with cattle and sheep from day one.
I did most of my pre-clinical work experience at an estate during university holidays. I got a lot of lambing experience here and general farm work, as it was on a far bigger scale than the farm we have at home.
Furthermore, I completed most of my clinical work experience at our local vet practice. We use this veterinary practice for our farm, so I knew them all well, and they were all very good to me with regards to what I was allowed to do.
The highlight of the course was probably in third year, when I travelled to New Zealand for three months to carry out my research project and write my dissertation.
It was on mastitis and the change in antibiotic resistance over time in UK milk samples, so it was very relevant.
My dissertation was meant to be presented at the World Association for Buiatrics conference in Madrid in 2020, but it was cancelled due to COVID.
While in New Zealand, I was based in a vet practice and then at the weekends, I could travel around and see the country a bit more. I ended up getting a first in my dissertation and third year, so that was an added bonus.
Furthermore, I have worked for Fane Valley Stores for five and a half years now when I have been home from university.
This has been so beneficial to me with regards to dealing with members of the public and speaking to farmers.
I did not do my SQP qualification but working here has helped to familiarise myself with the different dosing products, which has been useful for the veterinary course as well.
Honestly, I am a real home bird, and I miss the farm so much when I am away, but I have loved the course so far. I am sad to be finishing soon, but I definitely feel like the course has prepared me for starting work.
The main thing that shocked me when I started university was the sheer amount of content we have to learn – it is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
I actually really wanted to go to UCD purely because it was closer to home. I kept on 4 A levels to increase my chances of getting a place but still did not get the points needed.
Veterinary student life
At the University of Nottingham, you end up with two degrees. At the end of third year, you get a veterinary science degree, and in fifth year, you get a veterinary medicine and surgery degree.
This definitely played a part in me choosing to go here, along with the facilities available on campus to help us learn practically.
The course at Nottingham prides itself on how practical it is, which I definitely found to be true.
From very early days in first year, we were in dissection a couple of times a week, learning anatomy and how to do procedures on cadavers, which has helped now that we are in our clinical years and carrying out these procedures on live animals.
Our whole final year is spent on rotations, where we are in two-week blocks going to different vet practices in different areas such as farm, equine referral, small animal referral and small animal charity medicine.
It was good to see the different levels of practice and find out what areas I am and am not interested in.
The highs of the course for me was the work experience side of things, both pre-clinical and clinical. I was so lucky that every placement I went on was brilliant, and I was trusted to do so many things, which I know, unfortunately, is not the case for everyone.
From growing up on the farm and being outside all the time, I would be lying if I said I did not struggle with sitting in front of a computer all day, but I suppose you need to know the theory behind the practical aspect as well.
Advice for aspiring vets
If you really have an interest and want to do it, it is worth it. In my opinion, veterinary is one of the most rewarding jobs you could be in. No day is the same, and for me, that is so important.
If you do not secure sufficient points to study the course, keep trying! I was probably the only person in the country who achieved the A level grades I did and was still slightly disappointed because I did not get into UCD, even though I had a place at Nottingham.
However, I would not change it now. There are plenty of people on my course who did not get in the first time, and it makes absolutely no difference in the long run.
In fact, some people who took a year out before going to university were more prepared for the change, which I found the hardest thing, to begin with.
Desires to become a vet
If I could turn back the clock, I would not take a different pathway. I have no idea what I would do if it were not veterinary.
My love for animals made me want to apply to veterinary to begin with, but since being on the course and doing my work experience, I have developed a real interest in everything to do with cattle and sheep.
I find nothing more enjoyable than working with farm animals. Of course, a big side of veterinary is dealing with people as well, and I do enjoy that side of things too.
I am due to graduate in July, as long as my exams go well, and I hope to start working full-time in August.
My original plan beginning of the course was to be a mixed vet, but over the past couple of years, I have realised that my real passion is farm work.
When on clinical placements, I found myself drawn to going on calls rather than staying in the clinic on the small animal side of things. I have recently accepted a farm animal only job.
Furthermore, I have a particular interest in bovine reproduction and would like to go on to do a certificate in this in the future.
I can see the veterinary industry changing in the near future. I think there will be stricter controls on vets and farmers, particularly around antibiotic usage.
It is important for vets and farmers to have a good relationship with each other, so everyone is on the same page regarding the rules and why they are in place.
I think there is a real shortage of people leaving university now that want to do large animal work, but vet practices are trying to make this side more appealing to young vets.
Women in veterinary
From my part-time work, I have experienced first-hand some old-fashioned points of view about girls in the agricultural industry. When on placements, I have had farmers remark how they would not want to see me coming to calf a cow in the middle of the night.
I think this view needs to change, as I would confidently say there is not much a male new graduate vet could do that I could not.
Girls are definitely in the majority of vets at Nottingham currently, which seems to be the same at other vet schools.
People need to accept that this is the way things are now, and the level of care the animals receive will not be different whether a male or female vet sees the animal.
Plans after graduation
My ultimate goal is to achieve a certificate in bovine reproduction and continue working in the farm animal area of veterinary.
People have asked me if I want to open my own practice someday, but I do not know if that is on the cards. I think between working full-time and hopefully still keeping a few Herefords; I will have enough on my plate.
Vet student life is extremely busy. I definitely did not do as much partying as my friends on other courses. Typically, we were 9 am-5 pm Monday-Friday, in lectures and practical sessions in years 1-4 and clinics or on placement in year 5.
We had to carry out 12 weeks of pre-clinical EMS in years 1-3 and 13 weeks of clinical EMS in years 4 & 5.
However, I did a lot more than this as I enjoyed it and knew it would benefit me in the future. I did not have much spare time, but I enjoyed my time as a student – I look forward to getting stuck in,” the veterinary student concluded.
To share your story like this veterinary student, email – [email protected]
See more Student Focus profiles.