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Targeting work stress in dairy farming

Targeting work stress in dairy farmingUniSA Psychology PhD student Alison Wallis knows what can drive a dairy farmer to cry over spilt milk.

For the past four years Wallis has been investigating the work stress of South Australia’s dairy farmers.

It’s a group she says at the time of the research had one of the highest incidences of work-related stress in the nation.

“There hasn’t been a lot of research done on the stress levels of those who are self-employed,” Wallis said.

“But we found that dairy farming produced some of the highest distress scores of many Australian occupations.”

The research, supported by DairySA and an industry and farmer advisory committee, was prompted by the deregulation of the national dairy industry in mid 2000 where free market principles replaced a part-price regulated system.

While deregulation played its part in feelings of stress and uncertainty in farmers, the research showed there were many factors at play.

“Farming can be a very stressful occupation,” Wallis said.

“Research shows that work high in demand and low in control will result in strain and anxiety.

“There are factors that directly affect a farmer’s livelihood that are beyond their control, such as global markets, exchange rates and the weather.

“So levels of uncertainty in these areas contribute to higher stress.”

This was shown through the study’s two surveys, conducted during the national drought in the summers of 2002-03 and 2003-04.

Dairy farmer Ken Smith said while the drought affected other states more than SA, there were still repercussions that hit home.

“We were affected by the drought we weren’t actually having,” Smith said.

“Because other states were in a worse situation than us, they needed to get feed grain from South Australia. We were used to paying about $170 tonne for feed barley. It went up to around $300 tonne. That happened across two seasons.”

Wallis also found that dairy farmers have their own added work pressures.

“There are additional factors affecting dairy farmers, such as the long work hours they endure,” Wallis said.

“Dairy cows need to be milked twice a day, every day. That puts enormous pressure on farming families because it never stops.”

Smith, who has been a part of the research project’s advisory committee, agrees.

“Dairy farming is a seven day a week, all-year-round job. It takes detailed organisation and discipline to even go on a holiday,” he said.

“It is not easy for dairy farmers to take holidays in the same way wage-workers can. Not being able to take a break then adds to stress.”

Wallis’ research also identified key local factors affecting farmers’ sense of well-being.

“There were local issues affecting dairy farmers, such as their working conditions and increasing environmental pressures,” Wallis said.

“At the time the farmers were facing an uncertain future, they were also under immense community pressure to reduce the impact of dairy effluent and farm nutrients leeching into the environment.

“Many felt strong pressure to make their farms cleaner and greener. And while they had a desire to reach that goal, it’s an extremely costly exercise – in time and money.”

Primary Industries and Resources SA dairy representative on the research committee, Tony Morbey, says that while confidence was down during the time of the UniSA study, there is still a bright future for the state’s dairy industry.

“Farm numbers have dropped from 700 to 400 over the last five years, but the number of cows and the volume of milk produced have stayed relatively steady,” he said.

“And despite higher costs, farm-gate prices for milk are now the highest they’ve been since before deregulation. We have some of the best farmers and dairying areas in the world and there are opportunities for production growth and value-adding through a large range of dairy products.

“What is so great about Alison’s research is that it is giving us really strong, objective data that tells us what is actually happening out there on farms.

“It is enabling us to look at issues that are affecting farmers and their families and really concentrate on the areas that government and industry groups together can help improve – like developing programs to increase farm profitability, reviewing work practices and conditions, providing training in new technology and supporting improved environmental practices.

“SA has developed a plan that shows the potential to increase the state’s proportion of national milk production from seven to 10 per cent by 2013, taking production from 700 million to $1.2 billion litres.

“This UniSA research will provide very useful information that can be used during implementation of the plan.”