Stressed farmers urged to seek early help

01:50, Sep 18 2012
OVERLOADED: Balancing the books and studying onerous regulations add stress to farmers.
OVERLOADED: Balancing the books and studying onerous regulations add stress to farmers.

Research on 1000 dairy farmers nationwide by Hamilton-headquartered AgResearch reveals the top causes of stress for dairy farmers are finances, workload, relationships and health.

The research leader, senior social scientist Dr Neels Botha, said the most important message is that farmers and their families should seek help for stress before issues become crises.

Botha said the four leading causes of dairy farmer stress are not ranked in any particular order, as all are equally valid and deserve attention.

“With finances, farmers with high debt levels and other financial pressures can experience high levels of stress. For some farmers this can become chronic stress, where they worry about their finances all the time,” Botha said.

“Stress from workload relates to the sheer amount of work people have to do on farms. This is particularly the case with calving, when there is so much on and farmers can't do ongoing duties while they tend to cows calving.”

In relationships, farmers can experience difficulties with farm staff and in farm management, Botha said, with this stress at times filtering into personal relationships.


“If you employ someone who gives you a bit of trouble, it really bugs some farmers. Problems can arise with farms that were once small but have now had to bring in outsiders, as farm sizes get bigger and farmers get older,” Botha said.

Health issues causing stress for dairy farmers relate either to their own health or the health of their family members.

“With farmers getting older in New Zealand, age-related conditions can present challenges while doing physical farming work, and a lot of farmers have older parents to care for, which can cause stress.

“This all ties up with workload and not having time to do what you need to do.”

The research has been carried out over the past three years and will continue for at least another four years. The work is part of a Dairy Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing Project, co-funded by Hamilton-based industry good organisation DairyNZ and the Government's Primary Growth Partnership.

Botha said the research is designed to build a picture of what is happening on farms nationwide, so better support networks and resources can be developed to help farmers before they hit the wall.

The research involves national surveys of farmers at industry events and field days. Most people who attend these events are older people, including farm owners and managers, Botha said. AgResearch hopes to extend the surveys to younger people in the industry and farm workers. “We will try and spread our wings this year and get out to big properties with staff, and to other types of events younger people would go to.”

There is also potential for the research to be extended to other industries, such as the beef and lamb sector, Botha said.

Other stress-related research carried out previously as part of the project looked at the top causes of stress for under-pressure dairy farmers in the Waikato.

That work identified the top three sources of stress specific to the region as financial pressures including high debt levels, extreme weather events such as the region's three-year drought from 2008, and increased environmental obligations including Waikato Regional Council helicopter checks.

The council recently announced it will cut the number of random helicopter checks it does of dairy farm effluent systems, and put more focus on high-risk soil areas and ground-based visits.

The council said its move is not a reaction to the Waikato stress research, and emphasised that any dairy farm in the region could still be randomly checked by helicopter at any time.


Where farmers can go for help if feeling stressed

Your GP Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254

Lifeline 24-7 phone counselling service – 0800 543 354

Depression helpline – 0800 111 757 

Waikato Times