Conversations about careers: Calf and dry cow specialist

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Vertigo3d
© GettyImages/Vertigo3d
We talk to Michael Duncan, business development manager, young stock and dry cow specialist with feed company, ForFarmers UK, about his job and his career goals.

He is based in Ayrshire, in south-west Scotland

FeedNavigator: What’s your background?

Michael Duncan:​ I graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in veterinary biosciences in 2015 after four years of study.

FEN: How did you get your start in the industry?

MD​: My father has his own feed consultancy [where I gained some experience] and, through that, after university, an opportunity arose to work with ForFarmers UK, in the role of calf specialist. It is the beginning of the cow’s life, so I thought that was a good place to start. I did that for 12 months and then took on an additional function, working with dry cows.

Some 12 months later, the sales rep for the west of Scotland left her post, as account manager, to take up an opportunity elsewhere, and now I do all three jobs.

So I have a technical role in the calf/dry cow work, and a sales role. We have a sales team based in Penrith, which covers the north of England from Cumbria and Northumberland and Scotland - I provide technical support to that team. 

FEN: Is that not quite demanding, managing such diverse roles?

MD:​ Yes it is. I do two days usually on the calf/dry cow side and three days on the account manager side. You have to schedule things, and be strict with the timing of it. People pick up the phone, expecting you to be able to go to their farm the next day, when actually you are booked to be in Aberdeen. The calf/dry cow work will take me from Cumbria up to Aberdeen, the account management work from Stranraer all the way up to Glasgow; I do just over 40,000 miles per year. 

FEN: What do you like about your current job?

MD:​ Before I went to university, I wanted to work with animals, to travel and to grow businesses, and [this role fulfils all three of those ambitions]. One of the best part of the jobs is traveling to the Netherlands and seeing how Dutch farmers work, and going to Germany and seeing how they farm there. In the role itself, you can establish trusting relationships, and I like to see the transformations that take place over a few years of working with farms. 

FEN: Is there such a thing as a typical day in your role, or is every day different?

MD:​ It can be varied. In a given day, you might have to drop everything last minute just because something needs my immediate attention. But a typical day for me usually involves me doing the prep work the night before, and going over that quickly first thing the next day. There could be three or four farms visits in the morning, and the same again in the afternoon, depending on the work we are doing that day. If we are weighing calves it will be a much longer call than if we are presenting a new ration to somebody.

FEN: Are there upcoming digital tools that could facilitate your work?

MD: ​Yes, we are starting to break into that kind of technology, new apps and online tools that make things easier. To be able to teach someone via a webcam how to use an automatic calf feeder, that would be a huge time saver, rather than having to travel two hours to do that face to face. Younger farmers want to be able to manage things themselves. But it would also be a useful tool for teaching our own team. Long term, I think technology is going to be key to it all.

FEN: How do you keep up to speed on new feed developments?

michael duncan
'I think it is a generational thing, young people are impatient towards the future. They see everything they want, but they don’t want it in 20 years’ time. They are used to having everything at the touch of a button.' Michael Duncan, business development manager, ForFarmers UK

MD:​ I do a lot of internal courses. ForFarmers will fly me to the Netherlands, where we will go through a dry cow ration or discuss new products that are coming out. Once a month, we have a meeting with HQ where we are updated on NPD, which I then have to relay to the team here, make sure they understand the innovation. I go to a number of external seminars and courses as well.

FEN: Can you do further accredited education through the company?

MD: ​Yes, ForFarmers is very keen on developing staff like that. One of my colleagues has just completed a Masters after being three years with the company.

FEN: What are your sales objectives?

MD:​ ForFarmers’ approach is about trying to sell the Total Feed business, so it is not about just selling one individual feed at any one time, it is about trying to select from a range of 500 feeds and finding the one that is going to best suit the farmer. That is the objective, it is not that we have to sell 100% compound feeds or blended feeds, we have access to just about everything and it is our choice then to pick and choose what suits the farmer’s needs, regardless of the value for the company.

FEN: So it is more about ensuring long term relationships then, and making sure farmers keep coming back?

MD: ​Yes, that is the outcome we want.

FEN: What is the UK feed industry and agribusiness’s biggest challenge right now?

MD: ​Oh, definitely staffing. I think the whole sector, at the moment, seems to be increasingly understaffed. I don’t think it is just the feed business, it is also happening in the semen companies and in farming. There seems to be a lot more coming out the top end, and fewer and fewer coming into or staying in the industry. I have seen many people, over the past four years, exiting the industry after only being in it for two years.

I think the initial attraction to the feed industry is there but it is hard to actually retain staff for their whole career, and a lot of it comes down to, in my point of view, people wanting to progress, after a year or two, and when the opportunities are not there they leave. Historically, people would have done a similar job for 40 or 50 years in the feed sector. I think that as services become more automated, as the number of farms is declining, there are not a lot of opportunities in the middle and top tiers of the feed industry.

It is about what you want to make of the opportunities that are there. For me, I see the size of ForFarmers, and the opportunities it allows, Europe-wide. I am very settled in my role right now, but I think that I am the exception to the rule. I see a lot of young people around me wanting to jump about, and to progress as quickly as they can through the companies, guys wanting to go from zero to CEO within five years. I think it is a generational thing, young people are impatient towards the future. They see everything they want, but they don’t want it in 20 years’ time. They are used to having everything at the touch of a button.

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