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Veterinarians and nutritionists collaborate to improve dairies

Joel Pankowski Published on 31 December 2014

Dairy nutritionists and veterinarians play integral roles in nearly every facet of dairy cow and farm success. As such, these trusted advisers are vital partners in your dairy’s success.

Communication between all parties – consultants, employees, dairy owners and managers – is critical to optimize cow productivity and performance. Yet everyone has a story about a friend, neighbor or relative’s dairy where communication doesn’t occur in a timely or desirable fashion.

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Poor communication is the most cited source of conflict, and the main reason for a non-productive workforce because it negatively affects all team members. But it doesn’t have to be this way on your dairy. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way on your dairy.

Can we talk?
“Communication is a series of learned skills,” says Suzanne Kurtz, clinical professor and founding director of the Clinical Communication Program at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “It is not a personality trait or just a social skill at which you are already adept.” That means you can improve and learn new skills; if you want to enhance your effectiveness as a communicator, you can.

Over the years, substantial research on communication in human medicine has provided the basis for development of a structured set of skills for successful medical communication that offers a roadmap toward this objective.

When this set of skills is applied effectively, medical outcomes improve, as do patient and doctor satisfaction. “This framework for effective communication works,” Kurtz says, and it has been implemented in veterinary medicine, including the livestock sector, with similarly positive results.

By using good communication skills effectively, you achieve three significant outcomes:

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1. More effective consultations that increase accuracy, efficiency, supportiveness and trust

2. Better relationships that are characterized by partnership among all parties

3. Improved health outcomes for the cow, herd and farm

One of the most significant ways to enhance communication is to remember that effective communication must be an interaction, not a direct transmission – that is, not simply telling people what to do but interacting, exchanging perspectives and getting feedback on how your message has been received so you can confirm that it has been understood or correct misunderstanding.

A second valuable strategy is to think in terms of outcomes. “I can’t tell you what is effective unless I understand what you and those with whom you are talking are trying to accomplish,” Kurtz says.

“A well-conceived, well-delivered message is still important,” she adds, “but communication will be less than effective if you do not find common ground regarding problems and desired outcomes, frame your message in response to the clients’ perspectives and establish that the message has been heard and understood.”

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Furthermore, building relationship and trust with the people with whom you communicate is critical. “It’s really a series of negotiations in that you must agree on the problem before focusing on the problem and its potential solutions,” Kurtz notes. “This helps to reduce the uncertainty that can derail communication effectiveness.”

Regular communication is essential between dairy management and team members providing direct care of the animals and among dairy teams, veterinarians and nutritionists. Set and keep regular meetings that include all team members to keep everyone in the loop.

And talk to team members to learn their perceptions about the team and how it operates, Kurtz suggests. Remember, cows are the ones that suffer the most when communication breaks down – and it’s not beneficial to your bottom line, either.

Case study: Getting to trust
Without trust, Todd Follendorf, consulting nutritionist with Ag Consulting Team based in Dane, Wisconsin, and Dr. Adam Ward, veterinarian with Prairie Veterinary Associates in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, adamantly insist they would not be able to work as well together for the good of their dairy clients.

“I know it sounds simple, but it’s all about trust and communication,” Ward says, noting that the duo doesn’t wait for monthly management meetings to talk to each other about things they’ve seen or dealt with in mutual client herds. “We talk about potential problems before they become problems and try to get ahead of them,” he explains.

Since Ward and Follendorf are not always at a dairy at the same time, this information exchange keeps them both up to speed regarding the ever-changing on-farm health-related and nutrition-related conditions and influences.

Open communication
“We probably talk two or three times a week,” adds Follendorf. “We have a common goal – if the dairy does well, we do well, and we want to keep it that way. We understand that it doesn’t do any good to point fingers.”

Instead, Ward and Follendorf have made a concerted effort to extend this communication commitment to clients with the approach, “Here’s an issue we hope to solve for your dairy,” and then walk through the steps needed to do so. The analyses are not so much about who has the best solution but rely on asking a lot of questions to help everyone on the dairy understand what’s happening.

Empty toolbox
When the veterinarian-nutritionist relationship is not as transparent, favorable results for the dairy are not as forthcoming.

“It ends up being an extremely frustrating experience, for me and for the client,” Ward says. “It feels like I am missing tools in my toolbox to help them solve problems.”

He recounts an experience with a herd facing a surge in milk fever due to several factors, including a nutritional challenge. However, communication with the herd nutritionist was minimal and not inclusive. “In the end we solved the problem, but it took a lot longer than it should have,” Ward explains.

Follendorf notes similar frustrations when a communication gap exists and a consultant must rely on third-hand observations to get information. “It’s just more difficult,” he says.

Friendly advice
Ward and Follendorf offer the following advice to build and maintain a positive professional veterinarian-nutritionist relationship:

  • Get off on the right foot. Establish the relationship early; if you’re the herd nutritionist, don’t wait for the veterinarian to contact you; reach out to him or her and lay the groundwork for future communications. The same advice applies to veterinarians.
  • Be professional. Think about what you say and how you say it; tone and word choice matter. Also remember people’s names and smile when you get out of the truck.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. You set the stage for your day and how others see you, so if you want to be grumpy, expect grumpy in return.

Go to the Washington State Veterinary Medical Assocation website to view the complete set of evidence-based skills. While the specific skills spelled out there are presented in terms of client-veterinarian communication, they work equally well for communicating effectively with colleagues. PD

joel pankowski

Joel Pankowski
Technical Services Manager
Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition

Producer communication responsibilities

Good dairy team communication begins and ends at the top. It is your responsibility as an owner to set the right tone with your teams. Use these suggestions to help your key resources work together for the best results:

  • No “I” in team. Learn people’s strengths and encourage them to build on those strong suits. Stress the importance of consultant teamwork and focus on working toward the same goal. Don’t allow finger-pointing or placing blame when problems arise. Instead, concentrate on finding collaborative solutions. Nutritionists and veterinarians should be allies and work in tandem rather than independently.
  • Set goals and monitor performance. Determine herd performance objectives using team member input and advice. Make sure that these objectives and key information are delivered to the right person on the dairy. “This is a moving target,” says Suzanne Kurtz, clinical professor and founding director of the Clinical Communication Program at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

    “Think about with whom you should be talking and don’t assume that the information will always be passed along to the person doing the job.” Be sure to include feeders and reproductive team members when explaining protocols or ration changes, for example. Then track whether or not cows hit the mark and make adjustments as needed.

  • Expect the best. Dairy producers should have high expectations for their consultants in terms of performance and ability to work together. Their joint services provide the critical groundwork for the best nutrition and health protocols available to the herd. If a team member has difficulty communicating with other members of the team, it is time to offer training to enhance individual or team communication skills.

Encourage experts to focus on their area of expertise, report the facts and work with the team to identify solutions to problems rather than tell one another what to do and how to do it. Facilitate this relationship and focus on what is best for the dairy to keep the spotlight on healthy cows that are productive through all stages of life.

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