Cattle Country: Manitoba beef producers sought for study on farmer mental health in the Canadian beef industry
The following article was written by Peter Frohlich, National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE), University of Manitoba. It was originally published in Cattle Country in June 2022.
Weather conditions creating stress for cattle producers
There is no mystery that the past few years have been exceptionally challenging for producers in an already demanding farming environment. During the summer of 2021, parts of southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan were under extreme drought conditions while moderate to severe drought caused havoc in all other areas of the prairies. In winter and spring of this year, the drought conditions seemed to ease due to mass amounts of snow, however the unusual spring brought additional challenges for producers. When it was time for calving season, cattle producers found themselves dealing with previous year’s drought issues in terms of feed availability, plus a challenging calving made difficult by multiple cold and snow events followed by excess rain that saw a drastic increase in calf mortality rates.
Weather is not the only factor creating stress and uncertainty on farms. According to Farm Credit Canada, farmers’ stress can also be a function of finances, volatility in markets, long work hours, uncertain yields, and the well-being of the herd. Please read on to find out how you can help and be a part of the solution.
Mental health: what do the statistics say?
National data indicates that more than one in five Canadians experience a mental health concern at some point in their lives. Recent Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey found that 7% of respondents perceive their mental health as fair or poor. Stress and how we deal with it is a big factor that influences our overall mental health. In addition, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph found that Canadian farmers experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than the average citizen. Research shows that farming is one of the most physically dangerous and mentally stressful occupations worldwide and can result in increased anxiety, stress, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and others. There is also evidence that livestock producers experience greater rates of stress-related symptoms when compared to crop producers. These studies are important and timely because they generate data that collectively increase awareness of the often-neglected topic of farmer mental health and can help to ensure that the necessary supports are in place.
Government is getting the message
In May 2019, the Canadian Government tabled a Report by the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, entitled “Mental Health: A Priority for Our Farmers” where it highlights that farmer mental health is a key component of agriculture and an emerging area of concern. The report assesses the challenges and stressors on mental health that farmers face and it evaluates available mental supports for farmers and the limitations of these supports. The report provides potential solutions in the form of 10 recommendations that include efforts such as coordinating of nationwide initiatives, through to the introduction of new resources to help farmers.
University of Manitoba researchers are on board
The research community at the University of Manitoba is keeping the ball rolling. Research needs to dig deeper to identify and learn more about farmer mental health in order to address the issue promptly and effectively and to ensure appropriate resources are in place for farmers to continue to thrive in their work. In early 2021, the University of Manitoba increased research capacity in the area of animal well-being and farmer mental health by adding a key resource to the NCLE group of scientists that will work closely on this topic.
Dr. Meagan King is an Assistant Professor in Animal Physiology and Welfare who has an overall goal to improve the lives of people and animals in agriculture through her research which explores producer well-being, animal health, behaviour, and welfare.
Recently, King and her graduate student were awarded funding through Mitacs, a government and industry funded organization that supports Canadian research and innovation. She will further investigate and address questions focused on farmer mental health in the Canadian beef industry. The project is designed to collect information that will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of farmer mental health, related farm management practices and to explore the relationship of farmer health and animal health.
The project will begin in May 2022 and is expected to conclude in August 2022. Through this collaborative project with beef researchers at U of M, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and University of Calgary, King’s work will encompass beef operations in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. She also has an upcoming project in 2023 working with dairy farmers in those same five provinces.
How can you help?
King is looking for study participants. As a volunteer, a cattle producer is asked to fill out a 20-minute survey that will aim to quantitatively assess beef farmer mental health including perceived stress, anxiety, depression, resilience, and additional related factors. The survey, developed in collaboration with Heather Watson from Farm Management Canada will also contain questions on demographics, farm management practices, work environment, and responsibilities on the farm. The survey will be open early May and will stay open as late as August based on the number of responses received. All data collected will remain anonymous.
The survey can be accessed through Kings website at https://meagantmking.wixsite.com/research
The latest research on dairy farms indicates that there is a connection between animal health and the well-being of farmers. King’s research will also explore this relationship but on beef cattle operations with an aim to explore any unknown needs of the industry that could be addressed with resources for farmers or with future research.
To facilitate King’s research, volunteers will be asked to share various herd health records as King’s research will attempt to examine the relationships between cattle health and farmer mental health. Aside from addressing many questions on stressors affecting mental health, King plans to determine if there are barriers to the adoption of best management practices related to farm stress and mental health.
Overall, the goal of the research is to improve our understanding and ability to reduce farmer stress, enhancing the well-being of farmers and animals, their productivity, efficiency, and ultimately profitability. Discussing these challenges and our shared values on animal welfare and sustainability will also enhance public trust and compassion towards farmers. According to King and the research community, to ensure the success and sustainability of animal agriculture we must support the health and well-being of both farmers and cattle.
If you or your family are experiencing stress and require assistance, please see resources below:
- Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services (24/7) Toll free: 1-866-367-3276 https://klinic.mb.ca/2018/01/mental-health-farm/
- Farm Credit Canada: https://www.fcc-fac.ca/en/community/wellness.html
- Rural Health Info Hub: https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/topics/farmer-mental-health
- Farm Management Canada https://fmc-gac.com/
- A new program started March 1 and provides six free sessions per individual!!! https://manitobafarmerwellness.ca/
- Self-help workbooks: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/looking-after-yourself
- Professional services near you: https://cmha.ca/find-your-cmha
- Or you can always talk to your family doctor.
For more information of this project and the opportunity to be part of the research please contact Meagan [dot] King [at] umanitoba [dot] ca