Where to with dairy consultancy?

Richard Shephard

Gippsland Herd Improvement


Dairy consultancy is often viewed as a career goal by clinical veterinarians. Often, only a vague impression of consultancy services that can or could be offered is held and this can become a stumbling block to making the move to develop consultancy skills. This paper discusses consultancy – the types of consultants that exist, the nature of consultancy problems, the problem solving process, the skills required, and the method of delivering results to clients. A better term for consultancy is recommended - advisory practice - because this emphasises the provision of carefully considered opinions to farmers; information that they can use to solve problems. Economic methods such as benefit-cost analysis, scenario analysis and risk analysis provide the template for addressing multidisciplinary problems. These tools provide a means for assessing the impact of uncertainty within a problem – uncertainty that can arise from our lack of knowledge of a discipline like agronomy, or from an unknowable factor such as the quality of the season next year. Therefore dairy consultancy must head towards economics. A clinician who develops good problem solving skills and understands how to use economic tools to solve problems is a consultant who can go anywhere and everywhere.    


A progression from clinical practice into farm ‘consultancy’ is often seen as a career pathway for veterinarians. Perhaps this is contributed to by thoughts of freedom from after-hours and laborious clinical work and the pompous nature of the term ‘consultant’. But, consultancy is a very big and grey concept – it is often incompletely explored before setting of on the pathway. This can lead to confusion about: what is a consultant? What do I need to do to become a consultant? What can I do as a consultant? And, most importantly, why do I want to move to consultancy?

This paper examines the consultancy caper; what services do they offer? What skills do they have? How do they apply their skills for remuneration? Hopefully, this will give insight into the pathway and therefore the question will change from ‘where to with dairy consultancy?’ to ‘what consultancy work could I do successfully?’

What is a consultant?

In order to start we must examine the term ‘consultant’. The term implies superiority of ideas; with both professional peers and with clients – the consultant gives the ideas and everyone else must pick up on them. This produces an us-and-them mentality and it is not constructive for two reasons; it over glamorises ‘consultancy’, and it is not conducive to good problem solving – information flow must be two way and no one knows it all. The famous agricultural economist Jack Makeham called himself a ‘professional goal adjuster’ because he spent much of his time counselling against the introduction of wild schemes, or raising awareness of the potential of the resources currently under management and introducing people to new technology.

There are three types of consultants operating in agriculture – the domain expert, the generalist and the ‘in my opinion’ expert. Domain experts have very advanced skills within a narrow discipline. Examples include fertiliser, silage, and mastitis. These consultants offer their skills on their special topic to end users. There are two flow-on characteristics of a domain expert consultancy. Firstly, the use is very specialised and therefore these consultants must travel extensively to make a reasonable living from the service they provide or they must accept the consultancy provides only a small fraction of their income – the rest must come from more traditional pursuits (such as calvings). The other consequence is that the industry often needs very few experts with the specific skill set – the market can quickly be saturated. 

The generalist provides expertise in the methodology of examining and solving problems. These skills are applied using their professional training (eg veterinary science) and domain skills learnt from other areas (eg agronomy, economics). The key service that they offer is the ability to conceptualise problems that are either difficult to identify, to visualise, to quantify or to reason and convert them into material that can be used to make a justifiable decision. As a rule, generalists can grow their area of influence – by adding to the specific domain skills. This can allow them to build a service that generates a reasonable income from the local farming region.

For completeness we have to discuss the ‘in my opinion’ ‘consultant’. Unfortunately, this type of ‘consultant’ is common in agriculture – usually the service they provide is free (and often not requested). Any veterinarian who has been invited to speak at farmer discussion days will have occasionally met these ‘consultants’ – their advice is almost universally via absolutes (my cows give 3 litres of milk per kilogram of thistles eaten, you don’t need to teat dip, chook manure is the best source of phosphorous, etc) It is unfortunate that the scientific method that we have based our profession upon is not universally accepted as the best way to advance knowledge because the logical question in response to these type of comments is ‘what observations do you base your opinion on?’ The answer given is usually ‘it’s my opinion’ (or its equivalents: ‘that is what happens on my farm’ and ‘that is what so-and-so says/does’). It is important to acknowledge the existence of this type of consultant and to understand their template because it is one to avoid when developing your own consultancy. The other comment worth noting about these ‘consultants’ is quantifying their influence. Often it is the level of conviction apparent within the oration, or forcefulness of the delivery that influences the audience – not the quality of the message. If there is one message to learn from this group it is present your findings to your client in a firm, believable (even captivating) manner if you wish to exert a positive influence on the decision that they have to make.   

We have described what we need to become – someone who is trusted to examine farming problems and provide advice to farmers. The provision of advice implies:  the existence of a problem by someone (not the adviser), the adviser has knowledge on the problem that can be used to guide decision making, and that freedom to make the decision does not lie with the adviser!  So, our goal should be to become a trusted adviser rather than a consultant.

What do you advise on?

We need to understand the people who farm to be useful! This understanding must extend to an ability to define the goals and objectives of farmers from their perspective. If we can do this then we will see the range and understand the importance of the farming problems that they perceive. The problems that they perceive and the importance that they place upon them will be different to those that an outsider may list (especially a professional). At the end of the day, it is pointless solving the problems that you perceive to be there if the client is not happy with the result. Often the most important role of the adviser is to help farmer’s to perceive problems that they did not know existed. Only then can offered solutions provide an opportunity for the client to be satisfied.

A farm is a combination of resources such as land, water, pasture, machinery and cows with labour and finance. It requires careful management to combine the resources efficiently and produce milk in a profitable, sustainable, humane, and enjoyable way and in a manner that preserves or increases asset value. The farming brief is very large! Now consider some of the typical problems of farming:

The next step in the process is determining who is best suited to address these problems. For each of the problems listed above, the following skill set may be useful:

If we consider the typical problems and list of required skills we can see that veterinary science provides a partial fit – we are lacking in some areas though. However, if you apply any undergraduate degree training in the same way you arrive at the same conclusion – there is no perfect fit between training and real life problems. (This may be why some of the best advisers are successful farmers – they have managed to solve some of these cross-discipline problems; they are not all ‘in my opinion’ experts!). The problem of lack of fit of disciplines to problems should be our incentive to attempt to solve these problems – typically no one is better qualified than us! There is no perfectly tailored Bachelor of Consultancy degree out there.

So, the answer is: seek to give advice on all of these problems. But remember advice implies quality information and opinion – you have to develop skills to a level of competency first.

 What is the first skill I need?

Unquestionably, the most important skill that you need is a framework for addressing problems. As we have seen, problems tend to cross disciplines. The options and solutions are rarely black and white, the required knowledge is usually incomplete, the future unpredictable (especially in agriculture) and the results not guaranteed. The key almost always is to correctly identify the problem in the first place. Often when this is achieved, the possible solutions are few, obvious and easy to select from. This skill is a combination of art and science. The first and most important obstacle is that we need to see the problem from the perspective of the client – the art component. The second aspect is the ability to decompose the problem. We need to identify the facts, the relationship between variables, and the impact of change a variable if we are to visualise possible solutions. This is a skill that can be learnt and the good news is that the process strongly resembles the approach to diagnosing disease. This process involves collecting information from the animal (such as temperature, heart rate, blood tests) in order to identify affected organ systems, the pathological process involved and the agent and anatomical location of disease. Once this information is available, various treatment options are considered and the most suitable one identified. The option selected is often a function of treatment costs, probability of recovery, value of future production, and salvage value of the animal. Often different presentations of the same disease may result in different treatments being prescribed. For example, a left displaced abomasum diagnosed in a high producing cow shortly after calving may be selected for surgery. However the same diagnosis made in an empty cow in late lactation may result in culling. Veterinary practice promotes a thought process that enables problems to be identified and decomposed in order to arrive at a solution – we have a natural advantage.

We require a framework for examining options, determining consequences and risks and for ultimately making timely decisions in the face of uncertainty. In medical diagnosis, the tools we use for this include likelihood of recovery, cost of treatment and salvage value. These are concepts taken directly from economics. Therefore basic economics is the key first ‘must have’ skill for a budding adviser – we must formally build on these tools that we subconsciously use we must practice identifying and breaking down farming problems into their component parts[1]. The skill in identifying, defining and decomposing a problem can be innate, but they can certainly be improved with practice using an economic-based approach the task.

The components of problem solving are:

The value of economics is that it is the means for you to quantify the importance of a particular factor within the problem – in other words it provides you with guidance when an estimate of a variable from a non-veterinary domain will suffice (eg 1 megalitre of water will allow growth of 1 tonnes pasture dry matter), or if more detailed estimates (from an expert) will be required (eg pasture growth rate of 55 kg DM/Ha/Day can be expected from cultivar X under summer irrigation). Economics therefore quantifies your ignorance of the problem to hand! This both keeps you in check and directs your learning in other domains. The other interesting point arising from this process is that it places the veterinary knowledge into context. A farm is not just a collection of internal organs on legs. In fact these organs must be sustained by plants, their product must be harvested by machines and they are owned by people! A key pitfall to avoid is to only identify and solve problems within your sphere of expertise – we must have a whole farm approach to the endeavour. Place veterinary knowledge into context - animal health does not dominate every problem on the farm.

How much economics do I require? The methods for allocating scarce resources at the single enterprise level  is sufficient – the discipline itself becomes more complicated and less universal the more you move away from these local level (microeconomic) problems. The key skills to learn include assessing benefits and costs (partial budgets, whole farm budgets) risk assessment, and scenario analysis. A benefit-cost analysis provides the basic framework for examining problems (Table 1).

Table 1: Basic framework of a benefit-cost analysis of a change to a farm system (partial budget)

Increased Income

List and quantify all sources of income arising from implementing a given decision

Increased Costs

List and quantify all sources of costs arising from implementing a given decision

Decreased Income

List and quantify all income foregone from implementing the given decision

Decreased Costs

List and quantify all cost savings from implementing the given decision

Risk analysis and scenario analysis provide methods for assessing change and variation to predicted outcomes – this can be undertaken once the problem has been broken down into constituent parts in the benefit-cost analysis. These skills can be self taught through books such as “The Farming Game” and experience with spreadsheets allows easy construction of benefit-cost analysis and the development of more comprehensive scenarios and risk analyses[2]. This text also covers essential reading on factors that exert influence beyond the farm gate – interest rates, gearing, finance and basic supply and demand market forces. A basic understanding of these issues (especially finance) is essential for you to offer sensible and achievable solutions to clients.

The good news is that often basic knowledge from other disciplines is all that is required to allow a sensible decision to be made. It is worth noting that good farmers have innate capacity to address problems in this manner – they may not consciously address each aspect of potential income or cost change, examine risk or scenarios and they rarely use a spreadsheet – but their thought process covers these bases.

What is the next skill I need?

The economic model helps you to quantify your own ignorance. This process will tell you what skills are essential (and to what level you need to achieve) for your building advisory service. Let the work tell you what you need! You can always find and use domain experts until you get the necessary experience.

Combining the information

Learning some basic economics and a bit of agronomy etc provides the tools for your advisory service. But, it is advice not instruction that we are giving. Therefore there is a real art to process. This art is in understanding human behaviour. It is possible to be trapped into thinking that the frontier of farming is where our level of knowledge, capacity and ability lies. This is how we practice clinically; - we learn to perform LDA surgery, so we cannot go back to rolling the cow! Unfortunately, advising farmers does not follow this same rule. Just because we have learnt the physiology and nutrition required to extract 350 kilograms of butterfat per lactation from a cow does not mean that all farms must produce to this level.

The ‘art’ of advising rests in an ability to recognise the problem from the farmer’s perspective, then to address the problem accordingly and most importantly to present the findings back to the farmer in the way that they can understand. This is essential for them to use your information. You must address specific questions that they have on the problem and must ensure that they accept how you arrived at your answers. Importantly, you must still provide an opinion – present all the options, risks, and likely outcomes but make a recommendation on what you consider to be the most appropriate course of action for them to take.

Once you have assisted them with the decision making, follow up to see if your projections were correct and that you have recommended an appropriate course of action. Be aware that you will make mistakes – we cannot predict the future perfectly, but a good adviser follows up on advice given and assists restore the situation in the event of adverse results.


Where to with dairy consultancy? The answer must be everywhere, beginning locally. The generalist is more valuable than the domain expert in the world of farm advice. The skills that you learn can be applied to your own business and hopefully to develop new products that you can offer from traditional clinical practice.

[1] Malcolm, LR. 2004. Where’s the economics? The core discipline of farm management has gone missing! Presidential Address presented to the 48th Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Melbourne, February, 2004

[2] Makeham, JP; Malcolm, LR. 1993. The farming game now. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (ISBN 0 521 42679 0)