Becoming an accidental Social Researcher 

I (Kate Johnson) am not a very likely social scientist. I chose my A level subjects based on not having to write much, and then spent six years becoming a veterinary surgeon. But through a number of happy accidents I came to understand how much both people and words matter. In this blog, I reflect on my journey branching out from farm animal veterinary surgeon into becoming a researcher in the social AND animal science of farm management.

Limitations of veterinary science

After graduating as a veterinary surgeon I went to work at the Royal Veterinary College in the farm animal group and completed a PhD on the health of dairy calves. I collected data over three years on a cohort of 500 baby heifers on 12 farms following them from birth for a year. 

When I started collecting data, I diligently asked the farmers about their animal rearing practices. And the farmers carefully gave me all the 'right' answers, ones they had learnt from their vets and extension services. After several years, I realised those initial responses to my questions were their aspirations and I had to conclude that improving heifer health and welfare could not be done by quantitative animal science alone.

Veterinary doctoral work

Dairy heifers will grow up to be valuable adult dairy cows - hopefully producing ten thousand litres of milk a year for many lactations and being some of the most valuable farmed animals there are, often worth £1500 - £2000 each. But whilst they are babies, they can be rather forgotten - farmers are reluctant to invest in young heifers as they have high mortality rates with 15% dying before their first year producing milk and in my cohort around 10% dying by the age of six months. 
My PhD identified risk factors for common diseases and death as well as protective factors associated with good growth rates in my cohort. After four years of hard work my PhD helpfully concludes that *eye roll* baby mammals do better if they are fed enough milk, don’t mix with animals that are already ill and are kept in a clean environment (see me and me!). Considering science had sorted out germ theory about 150 years ago these results are not all that surprising.

Reality versus questionnaires

However, I also noticed that when asked about when they separated cows and calves, dairy farmers gave the 'correct' answer of ensuring that calves received colostrum and then were separated within 12 hours of birth to try to isolate newborn calves from any disease in the adult herd. 

But, in reality cow-calf separation was hugely variable. If the farm was busy and Mum looked like she was doing a good job they might leave them together for up to 10 days, but on other occasions they would remove a calf the moment it came out - perhaps because they were already in with the calves catching up another older calf and thought they may as well get the job done. They always planned to separate at a routine 12 hours… but life got in the way and that was only occasionally the outcome. 

The kind of ticklists that I included in my questionnaire (see box below) looked completely absurd in the face of farm practice - farmers had no weigh scales suitable for calves and they couldn’t always remember how old a group was exactly  - those “ticky box” options only carry a passing resemblance to the reality of being a farmer. 

Standard dairy farm question on weaning calves 

What are your criteria for weaning calves?

a) calf weight 

b) calf age

c) combination of a and b


In reality, calf age was recorded in the farm office but I never saw it written down next to an animal pen - so they were always guessing/remembering and they were generally right to within several weeks. And they never weighed them but they had a look (at how fat/skinny/healthy) and made a decision - a decision also influenced by the weather, the calf’'s health, whether they had space, and how busy they were with other tasks on the farm. As anyone who has ever fed a human baby powdered milk knows - mixing and feeding milk replacer is a time-consuming task.

Farmers could describe how they hoped to manage their heifers, but the practical reality of those calves’ lives was rather different. 

Bagging a social science postdoc

Near the end of my PhD, I had my first child (I did my best to give her enough milk, keep her clean and not give her contagious diseases) and applied for a qualitative postdoc at the University of Reading. My experience informally interviewing farmers gave me practical insight in designing farm fieldwork. I was successful, and joined RECAP, an EU project seeking to interview farmers to develop a web-based system for record keeping and regulatory compliance. 

For the project I designed semi-structured interview protocols and guidance for field staff undertaking interviews in England, Spain, Serbia, Greece and Lithuania. Afterwards, I analysed the qualitative interview transcripts using thematic analysis and mapped the responses to a Theory of Planned Behaviour framework.

Preparation and training? 

Fortunately I had access to the University of Reading library and its research methods section. I also read up on farm animal social science through journal articles (to which the university also had access). One that stands out is this one on biosecurity (keeping pathogens and infection risks contained through hygiene, disinfection and PPE). The content, pig and sheep biosecurity, was very familiar to me but the methods of interviewing in-depth small numbers of farm workers was new, but also made sense. The researchers weren't trying to calculate how many pigs or farms were at risk; they were trying to get inside the minds of the farmers and understand what they understand, how they feel, and what they believe, which is difficult to quantify.  

I also made friends with a social scientist while on maternity leave from the PhD who had a similar age child. We discussed social research design at the bouncy castle and softplay.  

Are social scientists replaceable? 

Yes and no. Mostly no. I should also mention that I supervised undergraduate social science veterinary projects for a number of years while undertaking the PhD at the RVC. It was necessary to know enough about their topic and methods to be able to guide the students.

The yes, is that there is a certain accessibility to (some) social science. You don't need a van of equipment and a technician to complete your data collection (I did). You might only need a dictaphone. You don't need a Home Office license to operate (animal scientists need formal permission from the Home Office to do invasive procedures on animals such as taking blood samples). 

But actually I didn't sleep much, to be honest. It was a steep learning curve! 


Since the postdoc, I've spanned the human and animal sciences on a joint project between the Royal Veterinary College and the University of Hertfordshire: the Sustainable Beef and Sheep Project. What next, animal, human or interdisciplinary research, it depends a lot on job prospects and research funding.

But I have brought the lessons from social science to bear on conservative, quantitative epidemiology projects by saying things like “but if we ask it like that they’ll say any old thing!" 

As written and told to Sophie Payne-Gifford.

Author Bio: Kate Johnson is a farm animal veterinary surgeon by training and Teaching Fellow in animal science at the University of Reading. The thing about treating farm animals is that you have to go through farmers to treat them.

Sophie Payne-Gifford is a social scientist and Senior Research Fellow in sustainable food systems at the University of Hertfordshire and regular contributor to the SRA blog.