Stress management on the agenda in County Fermanagh

Dairy farmer Joseph Leonard (centre) guest speaker at the Open Meeting of Fermanagh Grassland Club with Michael McCaughey (left) club chairman and William Johnston, secretary.
Dairy farmer Joseph Leonard (centre) guest speaker at the Open Meeting of Fermanagh Grassland Club with Michael McCaughey (left) club chairman and William Johnston, secretary.

One of the aspects of a busy life of a dairy farmer which is often overlooked, is the work management and the possible stressful situations which farmers face.

But one farmer has studied the subject comprehensively and has addressed farmers’ groups to outline his findings.

Joseph Leonard farms in partnership in Co. Meath, where they milk 600 cows and led his discussion group project on “Managing Stress and the Mental Health of Farmers” before undertaking a Nuffield Scholarship on developing stress management systems for farmers. He travelled throughout Europe, USA, India, New Zealand and Australia where he carried out interviews and case studies with farmers, industry personnel, Nuffield Scholars and mental health professionals.

He told an open meeting of Fermanagh Grassland Club sponsored by the Vaughan Trust that he joined the farm business in 1992 which then had 140 cows. He spent a year in New Zealand and on his return, the home herd was increased to 300 cows and he joined a discussion group in 1993 where he took the farm business more seriously. In 2015, he joined the farm partnership milking 500 cows and then helped his brother, Michael set up Bellewstown Golf Club.

The farm was completely redeveloped making roadways and paddocks. The herd was increased to 600 cows on a milking platform of 175 hectares with spring calving to maximise production around grass growth. The farm can grow 15 tonnes of DM per hectare but during the past summer, this reduced to 11 tonnes because of the drought conditions.

He said he had some personal pressures of workload due to the farm expansion.

He examined some of the issues which caused farmers stress and his key findings included:

o Managing stress involves the ability to cope with or lessen the physical and emotional effects of everyday pressure and challenges.

o The most important factor in the success of the farm was the health of the farmer.

o When his discussion group completed one of his surveys, some of the farmers were shocked by the hours they worked.

He came up with the following conclusions:

o Succession planning and intergenerational relationships need to be tackled in an open manner early.

o Realistic goal setting and proper planning help to identify a clear path to achieving ones ambitions.

o By giving young farmers an insight into the sort of challenges they will face in starting out in business.

o Farmers are more likely to talk about their problems to support personnel who have a strong rural connection/empathy.

o Developing a ‘farmer experience’ lead debate in the media and in education will resonate far more strongly with the farmers than one lead by non-farming examples.

Following his report, he recommended the establishment of a single, central farmer helpline which he said should be funded under Pillar 2 of European money. He also called for a farm mentorship scheme,

He advised farmers to build a system that was right for them.

When asked for warning signs, Mr. Leonard suggested looking for a change in someone’s behaviour and to strike a conversation with them.

Regarding changes to his own farm, he said they now start at 7am and finish by 5.30pm and they plan well in advance for routine activities with a monthly meeting to plan rather than reacting to situations. He also advised taking a few days off and taking a break before busy times such as calving.