Tommy Heffernan 2018 Nuffield Scholar. Image courtesy of That's Farming

Tommy Heffernan is a vet and animal health specialist. He is originally from Co Kerry but now based in Wicklow. After qualifying in 2002 from UCD, he located to Wicklow where he worked for 15 years in a large mixed veterinary practice. Tommy is a 2018 Nuffield Scholar. 

The only infection you want to catch is the learning bug

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow”.

My name is Tommy Heffernan a veterinary consultant based in Co. Wicklow. Before Nuffield, I had been a general practitioner running my own veterinary practice. I applied for Nuffield during a turning point in my career, selling a business I had helped build and taking off in a new direction.

I had become increasingly interested in farm animal medicine but also in the future of livestock production.
While I have a passion for animal health, I find the human element of my work equally interesting.

Ultimately all animal health on farms comes down to the decision-making of people. Often attitudes and mindsets are the biggest drivers of outcomes. After twenty-plus years my conclusion is that the farmers that do well are consistently brilliant at the basics and have the right mindset.

I wanted to explore the people element of agriculture more and I felt Nuffield would be the way to do it. It offered a unique learning experience that I couldn’t find anywhere else.

When I embarked on my scholarship it was going to be a steep learning curve. It began with the inevitable dose of imposter syndrome. When meeting other international scholars, you cannot but be impressed by their talent and achievements. Asking the question why am I here?

For me, the start of Nuffield was a time for self-reflection and maybe a little bit of soul-searching. The process challenges your thinking and the experience can make you uncomfortable. It is this challenge that makes the scholarship special, it forces you to move forward and grow. There is probably nothing more powerful and beneficial in life than continual learning.

To move the dial, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable. While the experience is a little painful, when you come out the other side you are stronger and a better person. It forced me to look at the outcomes I want from the next twenty years of my career in agriculture.

Probably the greatest value I got from my scholarship has been personal growth, something truly invaluable.

My topic was “A cow-centered approach to modern dairy farming”. A very simple topic and the concept is that by focusing more on what our cows/calves want we can have better outcomes for the animals, farmers, and the industry as a whole.

While this concept did not always seem persuasive to other people, since finishing my Nuffield programme, I have become convinced that it works. I have applied it to my work and training.

As simple as it sounds, by focusing on biological and behavioral optimisation in farming systems we can transform them.

It has now become the foundation of the veterinary work I do. Interestingly over the last three years, I found this foundational approach to work across any animal species and production system.

I have doubled down on systems thinking and focused more on people and behaviour change as well.

Nuffield was a catalyst for me to explore new ideas and challenge myself. We are often faced with dogmas around what we should be doing or worse how we should be thinking. My Nuffield experience showed me the opportunities in global agriculture. It has taught me to avoid groupthink.

It allows you to research a topic in a very unique way. The research is through your travels, meeting leaders and experts pushing the boundaries in global agriculture.

The network itself is also powerful because you meet like-minded people who aren’t afraid to challenge you. This is the way we get better, as one scholar said to me at the beginning : “Constructive feedback is the breakfast of champions”.

I have to take my own advice now and be brilliant at the basics. Remembering life is about doing the simple things well, consistently, and having a positive mindset to overcome our challenges.

You can read more about Tommy’s Nuffield study topic and download his full report here