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Challenging the myth of the irrational dairy farmer; understanding decision-making related to herd health.

Authors: Kristensen E, Jakobsen EB
Publication: New Zealand Veterinary Journal, Volume 59, Issue 1, pp 1-7, Jan 2011
Publisher: Taylor and Francis

Animal type: Cattle
Subject Terms: Veterinary profession, Finance/economics, Farm/farm management, Evidence/information based methods, Education/communication, Animal health programs
Article class: Review Article

Veterinarians working with dairy cows are suggested to refocus their efforts from being task-oriented providers of single-cow therapy and develop themselves into advice-oriented herd health management advisors. The practising cattle veterinarian's ability to translate knowledge into on-farm application requires a profound understanding of the dairy farm as an integrated system. Consequently, educating and motivating farmers are key issues. To achieve such insight the veterinarian needs to work with several scientific disciplines, especially epidemiology and (behavioural) economics. This trans-disciplinary approach offers new methodological possibilities and challenges to students of dairy herd health management.

Advisors working with dairy herd health management may sometimes experience that farmers do not follow their advice. Potentially, this could lead to the interpretation that such farmers are behaving irrationally. However, farmers who are confronted with advice suggesting a change of behaviour are placed in a state of cognitive dissonance. To solve such dissonance they may either comply with the advice or reduce the dissonance by convincing themselves that the suggested change in management is impossible to implement. Consequently, herd health management advisors must understand the fundamental and instrumental relationships between individual farmers' values, behaviour and perception of risk, to stimulate and qualify the farmer's decision-making in a way that will increase the farmer's satisfaction and subjective well-being.

Traditionally, studies on herd health economics have focussed on financial methods to measure the value of technical outcomes from suggested changes in management, following the basic assumption that farmers strive to maximise profit. Farmers, however, may be motivated by very different activities, e.g. animal health and welfare or other farmers' recognition, making it impossible to provide 'one-size-fts-all' consultancy because the best decision depends heavily on the internal logic and context-bound reality on each dairy farm. Relevant information may be available, but to be implemented at farm level it has to be communicated effectively. This requires a trustworthy communicator. Consequently, veterinarians are recommended to receive training in communication; keywords in this process are dialogue and refection. An educational framework based on science and the authors' experience is presented. The aim is to guide practising cattle veterinarians into a personal learning process considered necessary for them to be recognised by farmers as trustworthy dairy herd health advisors.

KEY WORDS: Herd health management, mixed-methods research,motivating farmers, educational framework, trans-disciplinary,evolving veterinary science

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