News & Press: NZVA news

Keeping an open mind

Tuesday, 1 May 2018  
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VetScript Editor's pick - May 2018

A rural King Country upbringing gave Kate Griffiths a passion for sheep and beef, before a generous and knowledgeable mentor pricked her interest in another species: deer. Mirjam Guesgen talks to the scientist-in-residence who heads Massey’s Deer Research Unit.


Ever since she was a child helping her dad to muster flocks, drench lambs and put up fences on their family farm, Kate Griffiths’ passion has been for sheep and beef.

Becoming a veterinarian gave Kate the ability to work with the animals she loved, and to help improve productivity for farmers. But after two years of mixed clinical practice in Taumarunui, Kate’s journey took an unexpected turn. She needed to relocate to an urban centre to give her husband, a pilot for Cathay Pacific, a chance to more easily pursue his career opportunities.

On the advice of former mentors at Massey University, Kate applied for the role of lecturer in pastoral livestock health. “That wasn’t necessarily part of the original plan,” she admits.

It was serendipitous because shortly after she started Peter Wilson’s retirement opened the door for Kate to learn from and build on his 40-year legacy of deer teaching and research.

Peter had a history of providing benchmarking data on diseases affecting deer – specifically, Johne’s disease, leptospirosis and internal parasites. He was fundamental in establishing a large number of best practices around deer health, particularly velvet antler removal. He notably also set up the deer branch of the NZVA, which he then chaired for 20 years, and Massey University’s Deer Research Unit.

Kate now heads the deer unit as scientist-in-residence, coordinating the animals for teaching. She muses that there is scope for her to carry on conducting what Peter describes as high-priority research, but for now she is firmly focused on her doctoral research with sheep.

Kate is investigating productive longevity and wastage in New Zealand flocks. Her research involves analysing body condition, weight and reproductive performance data collected over more than six years to try to link it to ewe survival.

The research will help farmers and veterinarians to understand the risk factors associated with ewes leaving a flock because of on-farm mortality or premature culling. She is also investigating whether it’s possible to relate ewe udder health to production, which could lead to the development of a ewe udder scoring system for managing flocks.

Kate’s other big project has been developing part of the first module of the CPD pathway programme.

Inspiration for the module came from work by Lorna Humm (see VetScript, November 2017), who created an animal health plan for deer. Kate adapted this initial workbook to include sheep and beef, developed a coursework structure around the workbook and saw the course through the accreditation process.

Programme participants will learn how to create an individualised farm risk assessment and disease management plan for sheep, beef and deer. “Where we’re trying to go is that individual farmers have a very tailored approach rather than one size fits all.”

This is important knowledge for veterinarians because of the increasing awareness of antimicrobial resistance, according to the NZVA’s CPD Academic Director Charlotte Cantley.

“Veterinarians need to engage with farmers directly to prevent and monitor disease and create a productive, sustainable, welfare-considered system,” Charlotte says. “We need animal health planning on all farms to do this.”

Kate, who favours a proactive approach to animal health, agrees.

The module will cover topics such as performance review, defining targets, risk assessment and disease management. Enrolment in the course is open now and runs until the online theoretical component starts on 11 June. The online component will be followed by a one-day workshop at the end of July, and then an assessment.

Kate’s mainstay, however, is teaching veterinary and agriscience students the fundamentals of sheep, beef and deer production and health. Seeing her run the deer special topic week for year-five veterinary students – it’s so popular that it's been oversubscribed for the past two years – it’s hard to imagine that deer is a relatively new species for her.

She credits her confidence to the knowledge she acquired from Peter. The passing of the torch entailed shadowing Peter during his practical classes and attending meetings with deer industry leaders.

“He was awesome, and he left behind so much information and research that it was nice to pick it all up,” she says.

For teaching, she draws on her personal experiences and her time in clinical practice.

Her rural King Country upbringing gave her knowledge of livestock and food production from a young age, and university helped her to identify the lecturing styles that she found effective and engaging. Her goal is to pass on the theoretical and practical proficiencies future veterinarians require, while at the same time helping them to see the reality of practice life.

The James Herriot-style veterinarian rarely exists any more, she says, and veterinarians have scope to specialise. Because of this, Kate emphasises the competencies new veterinary graduates need from the start, versus competencies they can refine over time as their interests develop or change. She points out her own development, from a student who came into the degree set on sheep and beef to her discovering a love for surgery.

Kate also shows students how to take a clear, investigative approach to their veterinary practice so that they ask the right questions and pick up the right information.

The idea, she says, is that “even if it’s something new or weird or wonderful, you have a plan”.