A first-ever University of Guelph study has discovered that dairy herd health may be linked to the farmer’s mental well-being.
The study, published in the journal Animal Welfare, focused on Ontario dairy farms that had adopted robotic milking systems, an automated technology becoming more popular across Canada.
A team led by Dr. Trevor DeVries, a professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences, tracked different measures of cow health among these farms and decided to explore how farmer well-being was being affected.
“Interestingly, we detected associations between dairy farmer well-being and measures of cow health and production, which had not been documented before,” he said.
Farmers who added automated feeding systems to robotic milking systems reported lower stress, anxiety and depression and greater emotional resilience than those who used robotic milking systems and traditional feeding methods.
“Both the automated milking and feeding systems have already become crucial to providing farmers with more time flexibility,” said lead author Dr. Meagan King, who was a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Animal Biosciences during the study.
The issue of how to improve and support farmer mental health is a timely and important one given previous U of G research that found farmers reported higher stress, anxiety, depression and burnout than other Canadians.
DeVries’s research team, which also included master of science student Robert Matson, focused on 28 farms with 45 to 160 milking cows where robotic milking systems were used. The researchers visited farms to assess management practices, cow health and milk production, and asked farmers to complete online surveys about their mental well-being.
Cattle welfare, measured as fewer lame cows, was linked to better farmer well-being. Farmer stress and anxiety were higher on farms with more severely lame cows. Farmers who worked mostly alone also reported higher anxiety and depression.
“Our study was not able to determine causation — whether better farmer well-being led to better health of the cows or whether it was the other way around,” said King. “But it’s likely that farmers who have good mental health are better able to manage their animals’ health. It could also go the other direction: that farmers derive a sense of well-being when their animals are healthy and productive.”
Poor animal health and welfare can affect the farmer’s mental well-being, she added.
“Farmers take a lot of pride in how their animals are doing and so they see their animals’ health and productivity as a reflection of their work,” said King, who is now with the University of Manitoba.
Poor mental health may also be related to low levels of adoption of animal welfare stewardship. Promoting farmers’ mental health may help improve animal welfare, said King, adding that the team’s findings fit with the “One Welfare” approach to understanding animal welfare.
“When we look at animal welfare through the One Welfare lens, we acknowledge the interrelationship between animal welfare, human well-being, and the physical and social environment,” she said.
Automation in the dairy industry is growing exponentially. In previous research, DeVries found that farmers adopting robotic milkers reported better quality of life, improved herd health and management, and higher profits.
“Robotic milkers are the most reliable employee you’re going to find, and they can help keep farms profitable, which is important in a time where reliable farm labour is hard to come by,” said King.
The research was funded with assistance from U of G’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.
Dr. Trevor DeVries