In this week’s vet series, That’s Farming, profiles veterinary practitioner Adam Conn. He discusses working in California as a vet, becoming a business partner, using digital media to educate the public, his passion for dairy herd health and the profession’s challenges.
Adam Conn has 13 years of experience as a vet and spent three months in Malibu, California, after finishing year two of college, where he worked on a horse ranch camp for children during his summer holidays.
Experiencing first-hand visits from the local vet on the farm since seven-years-old and assisting during lambing season played a fundamental role in Adam’s career choice.
In 2004, Adam (36) applied to the University of Glasgow after finishing his A levels and studied veterinary medicine and surgery [BVMS] from 2004 to 2009, where he graduated with a commendation.
The Ballykelly, Londonderry vet counts himself as quite “lucky”, having received five university offers.
He chose to study at the Glasgow-based university because of family connections and to travel via boats and planes to Northern Ireland.
He, therefore, finished his final year in university and then travelled to Dublin to complete his North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) to work in America.
Adam enjoyed working as a vet in California and its associated outdoor lifestyle.
However, Riada Veterinary Clinic in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, approached him during his exam preparation with a veterinary job offer, and “the rest is history”.
“Once I got into this job and realised it was a good job with a great company and fun team, it was hard to leave and go to California,” Adam Conn, wife to Rebecca, who has two children, Mabel (3) and Poppy (2) told That’s Farming.
“So, I decided I would holiday in the warmer climate instead of working there.”
After a few months of farming at home, he joined the practice. Adam juggles helping on the home farm with being a veterinarian.
His father, Ian, finishes approximately 100 Charolais-cross cattle, usually through Ballymena Livestock Market or Foyle Meats County Derry, on his lowland farm.
He said 75% of this land is grazing ground, and the remainder they lease to a local farmer for growing barley and potatoes.
Adam met his wife, Rebecca, from Cheshire at a veterinary conference in Enniskillen, who worked for a veterinary company and happened to be attending the event.
She moved her job from England to Northern Ireland before leaving the veterinary industry to set up her own company.
“Having a wife that understands the business and supports me with the unsociable hours definitely helps things.”
“I suppose with life as a vet; you can be out during evenings, which is a busy time for a young family and then weekends, late nights and early mornings.”
“It was always veterinary I wanted to do as far as I can remember. I was always telling people I wanted to be a vet. It never got to the stage where I thought anything differently.”
“There was never any other career that I was going to do. It was always going to be involved with some agriculture.”
In 2018, the business appointed Adam as one of five business partners of the practice.
He believes the partners offered him the partnership because of his ten years of dedication to the practice as a veterinary assistant and his commitment to build and foster client and staff relationships.
“It was a big change to my daily life. You go from an employee to helping run a business, which is a steep learning curve for a vet.”
“I suppose there are a lot of different things that you do not appreciate that go into running a business when you are a vet.”
“It was something that was never taught at vet school when I was a student.”
Riada Veterinary Clinic
The practice employs eleven vets, two TB testing vets, three TB clerks and ten office staff.
According to Adam, the business has ten vets on the rota, which is equally shared. In winter, they have three vets on night duties and in summer, they have two vets on at night.
“I like to think we are good in supporting vets. We want them to be happy and comfortable in their work.”
“So, I think one of the main ways that we can retain staff is by giving plenty of support.”
“In my opinion, that is one of the reasons why practices lose younger staff. We have a very low staff turnover, and in my opinion, that is the main reason.”
The clinic covers a 20-mile-radius of its base, with 80% dairy-related consultations and 20% mixed animal and small animal examinations.
“We like to provide as good as service for clients, so there is never too much stress on animals.”
“During out of hours, for example, if the first vet is busy, we will send the second vet, and when the second vet is busy, the third vet goes.”
“We also feel this lets us focus on the job in hand, without the pressures of trying to be in two places at once during busy months.”
Furthering his knowledge in the profession
Former vet with Riada Veterinary Clinic, Jim McDowell, shaped Adam’s career by mentoring him and helping him finetune his people’s skills to use in the profession during his first eight years in the business.
“The main thing I learned from Jim was whenever he drove into the yard, all the clients loved to see him.”
“I suppose although clients were paying for him to come. There was usually stress involved when he arrived, they all still wanted to see him. So, I took quite a lot from that.”
Adam said every day is “different” being a farm animal vet, and he sees “weird” and “wonderful” things.
He said a rare case he has come across was a calf that lived for several months with an ectopia cordis heart.
Adam’s most enjoyable part of the job is his daily commute to and from work along the “beautiful” north coast and working outdoors with “friendly” clients.
He believes two qualities a capable vet possesses are “good” communication skills for building client relationships and “good” decision-making for high-pressure situations.
Adam is most passionate about dairy herd health, fertility, and calf health and graduated from UCD in 2018 with a post-graduate certificate in dairy herd health through UCD.
Dairy herd health
He hopes to further his studies in dairy herd health in the long-term.
He spends 80% of his day focusing on dairy herd health and fertility. Furthermore, he likes to preview potential preventative measures and try to get ahead of the game and prevent problems.
“Yes, that one animal that is sick needs to be treated extremely well, but the wider picture of working out what caused this and how to prevent this from occurring again or more often is how I am going to better look after the health of this herd.”
“I suppose with fertility; you have to be on the ball all of the time because if you lax now, nine months down the line, that client is going to have fewer cows calving, fewer calves on the ground and, therefore, less milk in the tank.”
“For me, working is all about producing and maintaining happy, healthy, well-fed and comfortable cows producing the best quality milk for each client.”
He finds his Instagram page, thevetatthecoast19, a “great” tool to showcase his work and said it has helped with the firm’s overall image and recruiting staff.
“I use Instagram as a tool for weekly herd fertility quizzes. I find it amazing the number of people from all walks of life that enjoy my scanning quizzes. It is incredible to see the interest in it.”
His main advice for new graduates is not to take things “personally” or get “disillusioned” that you cannot fix every problem you face.
“I suppose with experience, you realise that instead of focussing on the single animal, you have to look at the herd as a whole, look at any patterns and try to get ahead of the game with future problems.”
Commenting on whether veterinary meets his expectations, he said he never thought he would be dealing with large dairy farms as a veterinary graduate, having come from a mixed farm.
However, he said he enjoys building client relationships by carrying out routine herd health and fertility visits on farms every two to three weeks and on some enterprises weekly.
“I suppose it is whenever I give them my opinions and discuss problems or aspects of herd health it is that they then listen and trust me, and maybe next time I am out, they have put something in place to help that problem.
“I enjoy building that trust up with clients. Whenever you think someone is listening to you or trusting what you are saying, it makes your job that more enjoyable.”
Challenges he faced in his early career as a veterinarian included life on-call and trying to build up client trust.
He said the biggest shock to the system was when he qualified from university, the transition from a very sociable lifestyle to an isolated one, especially during late-night call outs.
“I was very lucky that we have a good team spirit. It is enjoyable going to the practice in the morning.”
Adam said veterinary medicine has changed “massively” in his thirteen years.
He said vets have moved to be more like farm advisors with inputs in everything from shed designs to vaccination plans.
He further added rather than their traditional role, they are now more “focused” on preventative herd health.
The Northern Ireland vet added that since starting in veterinary, the uptake in preventative health with vaccinations has made a “massive” difference in the way vets work.
“For instance, we used to see batches of animals coughing or not thriving with pneumonia at certain times of the year, whereas we rarely see it these days.”
Plans and the future of veterinary medicine
Adam intends to progress in the veterinary clinic, continue building client relationships, and travel with his family.
Adam added that a third of his customers are milking cows robotically. So, he can see a future for himself, specialising in this area using the data from this software, e.g., data analysis and feed table changes.
“It is happening naturally, but I would have to do some specialist training in that area.”
“I think the days of vets out on the road and driving along and doing a few calls in the day are probably gone. It is definitely becoming more of a consultancy-type job rather than an ambulance service.”
He feels he has reached his ultimate goal in the profession of becoming a practice owner and plans to continue working and ensure the business is successful.
“My goal is to maintain and grow Riada Veterinary Clinic as a successful veterinary practice that people want to use,” the vet concluded.
He said if he were to turn back the clock in his journey, he would have travelled more to learn more about different farming systems.
Adam summed up his life as a vet so far as tough “going”, hard “work, long “hours”, but incredibly “rewarding”, “exciting” at times and “fulfilling”.
Are you a veterinary practitioner? To share your story, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming, [email protected]
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