Researchers at the University of Guelph have identified a link between dairy cow herd health and farmer mental wellbeing.
Dr. Trevor DeVries, a professor in the Animal Biosciences and Canada Research Chair in Dairy Cattle Behaviour and Welfare, worked alongside Dr. Meagan King, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the time and the lead author on the research. She’s now an assistant professor in animal physiology and welfare at the University of Manitoba.
“We were working on a large survey project over a lot of farms,” DeVries explained. He and King were “collecting the data on the health and productions of the cows on those farms.”
So, they also did a survey about farmer mental wellbeing “and then we connected those two in our analysis,” he added.
The researchers found correlation; however, causation is more difficult to discern.
“We demonstrated the link, but whether or not it’s the fact that better farmer wellbeing leads to better (animal) health or the other way around, we can’t really say,” DeVries said. “I think we can make an argument for both.”
“It could be that how farmers are doing is impacting their ability to manage their animals and how efficient they are at getting all their chores done, so how they’re doing might impact how healthy their cows are,” she explained. Conversely, a healthy herd may improve the mental health of the farmer.
It could also be a cycle, she added.
“If your animals are doing well that’s going to also have a positive influence on your own demeanor, and probably your own demeanor is going to influence the way you work with your animals,” DeVries added. “I think it is a two-way relationship, they’re both driving each other. The emphasis then should be on promotion of both of those things.”
The researchers hope their work may help to continue to break down the stigma around mental health in the ag community.
“If someone’s reluctant to get help for themselves, but they realize it’s going to benefit their business and their animals, maybe they’re more willing,” King said. “There’s a huge push towards improving animal welfare conditions and I think that’s wonderful, but it’s also important to remember that people are a huge component of the farm and that their wellbeing matters too. So, if they are connected, maybe we should be focused on supporting both.”
In the future, “finding opportunities to support producer wellbeing and mental health are then also going to likely have a positive impact on how they manage their cows, and the wellbeing of their cattle,” DeVries added.
King hopes to continue to study the link between animal welfare and performance and farmer mental wellbeing on dairy farms, as well as with other livestock species.
The link makes sense, for most farmers “take a lot of pride in their work, their farm is a big part of their life,” she said.
Producers “really take pride in the health and performance and welfare of their animals,” DeVries agreed.
DeVries and King had previously looked at “producers who had adopted robotic milking technology,” DeVries explained. “We surveyed them on their perceptions on how the adoptions of that technology changed things for their farm. Overwhelmingly, the majority of producers suggested that the adoption of that robotic or automated milking technology had improved their quality of life.”
Those results were part of the motivation for this new research.
That work also involved “spending time on dairy farms looking at animal health and realizing how big of a piece of the puzzle the people are,” King explained. The work was further inspired by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, who’s groundbreaking research brought farmer mental health to light, and King’s own mental health challenges.