Brendan Byrne (right) talks to Tommy Heffernan (left), known in farming circles as ‘Tommy the Vet’, who has put his stamp on social and is a much sought-after speaker on agri and food innovation.

Tommy Heffernan is a veterinary consultant, based in Arklow, Co. Wicklow. He is known in farming circles as, ‘Tommy the Vet’ and much sought after as a keynote speaker and communicator.

He has developed a passion and skill set away from traditional practice, to work outside of practice.

“I’m often associated with social media and the making of videos. While I enjoy doing this and blogging, I find nothing quite as exciting as presenting. I’m very passionate about what I do, this usually comes across”

These skillsets and insights have inspired him research how to best to enhance and improve farming systems, along with the development of farm health programs.

“If you swim with people that are faster than you, the best option is to become a better swimmer. I treat networking like this, by being around people who are smarter and challenge me, I have really grown”

What inspired you to become a vet?

As a young boy my crèche was a small mixed farm in Kerry. My grand uncle kept 20 cows and 70 sheep. This is where I spent my youth and every spare minute I had. I was fascinated with animals and particularly farming and food production. I can still remember seeing my first cow calving on a cold winter’s morning. I remember the vet coming to treat calves and just thought the whole thing was a little magical.

You received a Nuffield international farming scholarship in 2018. What did you learn from that experience?

I was honoured to receive this international farming scholarship in 2018. I went off to study cow behaviour and the influence of humans on this. I quickly realised animal welfare and social license where huge issues in developed countries producing animal protein. I think we must recognise social license is a challenge for farming, but this must be balanced with our need for animal protein and growing global demands for it. I proposed in my topic, by focusing on animal-centred production and optimising biology to enable us to achieve strong social license and feed the world.

“When you see yourself making a difference to a person or people there is no greater feeling”

What are the main drivers of change in the animal health industry?         

I have been studying ruminant farming systems closely for the last 10 years. I look at how we can improve these for better animal health, performance welfare and profitability. I also apply that systems-based approach when I work with companies who Work in the agri-industry. I have actually developed my own systems-based approach to problem solving and behaviour change. I apply this in all aspect of the work I do. Early days but it works. I spend about 25% of my time actually now training vets and others in the animal health industry.

I am also currently working on animal health programmes that can be used to help improve overall farm performance through better animal health. Long term, I want to be involved in the evolution of our food animal systems to help improve them and as I say, ‘help make farming better’. The challenges encompass animal welfare (social license), antibiotic resistance, the production of animal protein and ensuring environmental harmony to name a few. (We also must instil more positivity around farming and continue to bring people into food production and ensure farmer sustainability.

What is your favourite method of communications and why?

I’m often associated with social media and the making of videos. While I enjoy doing this and blogging, I find nothing quite as exciting as presenting. I’m very passionate about what I do, this usually comes across. I also have studied animal health very intensely for 10 years. I love trying to simplify Messages and connect with an audience to really help make a difference. I also like to think of new ways of presenting and I’m known to have a small Sense of fun as well.

How important has networking been in your career to date?

If you swim with people that are faster than you, the best option is to become a better swimmer. I treat networking like this, by being around people who are smarter and challenge me, I have really grown. The agri-sector in Ireland is small actually and there is some fantastic people working in it. I have a good network in agriculture but what has probably been equally as valuable is my network outside agriculture. I have a number of people I talk to, where we challenge each other regularly on a variety of topics. This type of diversity allows me to bring fresh thinking into my work

What makes your veterinary consultancy different?

I’m only two months in, maybe it’s too early to say. I am very results driven so it will be the clients I work for, that might be the ones to answer that question. I suppose I have a unique set of skills built up over the last 10 years. I have run and grown a veterinary business. I also have really enhanced or worked harder to become a better communicator. I’ve studied every aspect of ruminant health I could over the last decade. These skills when applied correctly seem to get good results.

“Innovation and creativity are the bedrocks of businesses in the future”

What level of impact can Irish farming and food make in the world?

Huge for the scale of what we produce on this small island. We can continue to go this route, but I feel there is probably a bigger opportunity in the way which we produce food. Global agriculture faces many challenges, we could turn these on their head and actually look at them as opportunities, particularly our pasture-based systems. That’s another day’s work around the ideas I have and the conversations I’m having with farmers.

Have you any side hobbies or interests?

I like to keep somewhat fit and if I can sneak a few hours hill walking with just my own thoughts for an hour or two, this is my idea of bliss. However, quality time with family and kids is where I spend most of my down time.

What makes it all worthwhile?

The challenge of it. I coasted for a few years and its okay to do that. Now, I’m totally energised by challenging myself and loving the work I do. When you see yourself making a difference to a person or people there is no greater feeling. When you feel like you are growing and getting better. When you face adversity, maybe even get kicked in the teeth and are still able to get back up again. I will have no regrets that’s for sure.

Can innovation play a role in enhancing the business of agriculture?

Innovation and creativity are the bedrocks of businesses in the future. I think technology will continue to be a massive disruptor, so businesses who fail to innovate may just fail. We also need innovation now more than ever, and the global issues we face like climate change, means we have to become more innovative and imaginative in our thinking.

Written by Brendan Byrne

Published: 26 February 2020

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