ANALYSIS - Facing increasing pressure on finances as well as uncertainty surrounded Basic Payments, the oncoming winter months are likely to worsen the stresses on many dairy farmers. Melanie Jenkins looks at the mental strain of running a dairy farm this winter.
Dairy farmers have been hit hard by the drop in milk prices over the past 10 months, and with production costs likely to rise over the winter the future is pretty bleak.
As a result of the downturn, dairy producer numbers have fallen every month of this year, with the industry losing over 4 per cent each month on year earlier figures until October, with the highest fall of 4.8 per cent in April. As of November, producer numbers across England and Wales stood at 9,654.
In 2014 most months saw a year-on-year drop of between 2 per cent and 3 per cent, while in 2013 this was between 1 per cent and 2 per cent: In 2012 it was mostly below 1 per cent. This puts into perspective the difficulties the dairy industry is facing, with more farmers quitting the industry than since 2009.
"Farming is not just a business, it is a way of life."
According to Peter Riley from The Farming Community Network (FCN), low profitability is one of the main causes of concern for dairy farmers, with 43 per cent of all cases - across all farming sectors - reported to the FCN in 2014 saying financial issues were a problem.
“Farming is not just a business, it is a way of life and very often the farm has been handed down through generations of the same family. This can place enormous pressures on the farmers who do not want the business to collapse and the farm sold up ‘on their watch’,” said Mr Riley.
“While the situation for some farmers has eased slightly, it is still a source of problems for many dairy farmers and there have been several cases of farmers selling the herd and leaving dairy altogether.”
TB is another major issue. “In the South West of England and in much of Wales, bovine tuberculosis has been endemic for a number of years,” said Mr Riley.
“There are signs that the disease is spreading into other areas and both dairy and beef farmers are in constant fear that there will be a breakdown in their herd.” Last year 28 per cent of cases reported to the FCN had problems concerning bovine TB.
Look out for signs of stress and depression
Depression and anxiety also featured heavily in FCN referrals, with 32 per cent of cases saying it was a problem, while 30 per cent listed general health and 29 per cent said family relationships were an issue. “A farmer may see that the business is struggling and this can impact upon the family and result in domestic problems,” said Mr Riley.
“Allied to financial difficulties and other pressures, we are seeing an increasing number of calls to our helpline from farmers suffering from depression and, in some cases, this has led to mental health problems. Inevitably, this can affect the whole family and recovery is slow and gradual: It can take a long time to recover.”
Mr Riley stresses that it is vital to keep an eye on family and friends who may be experiencing difficulties. Practical signs to look out for include the farm falling into disrepair, as well as animals and machines not being looked after properly.
Behaviourally, people might become morose, stop talking and withdraw into themselves. “We are asking everyone and anyone connected with or visiting farms, from tanker drivers to feed merchants and vets, to look out for signs of stress and depression,” said Mr Riley.
The heart of the message to farmers is to not try to do everything on your own. Farming can be an isolated 24/7 job, where farmers are on their own for days on end, but there are people they can talk to.
“The message is simple - talk to us,” stressed Peter Riley. “Do not bottle up your problems and wait until it becomes a crisis.”
Mike Gorton has been farming at Harebarrow Farm, Macclesfield, Cheshire, since 1976, but the current dairy crisis is forcing him out of the industry. Unfortunately Mr Gorton is one of many farmers in the same position; struggling against low milk prices and unable to justifiably continue to produce milk.
"Unless the milk price miraculously recovers, I will be exiting the industry."
Until very recently, Mr Gorton was milking 70 cows, but has reduced the herd size to 55 this autumn as part of a step to give up altogether. “I cannot carry on with the low prices at the moment. Unless the milk price miraculously recovers, I will be exiting the industry,” he said.
Unfortunately, Mr Gorton recently received an inconclusive result in a TB test, which has left him unable to proceed with dispersing his herd and at a loss for what to do now. “I am feeling distraught and pig sick right now. Any decision of where to go now it out of my hands at this stage.”
On top of this added stress, Mr Gorton says the idea that the Basic Payment may not be on time is unthinkable. “It would be horrendous; I cannot meet my monthly bills and I am up to the limit on my overdraft.”
Thankfully, he has approached the bank for help. “I could add my bank manager to my list of family contacts we speak so often. We have regular conversations every three to four weeks and the bank knows what I and other farmers are up against.” Some banks, including Mr Gorton’s, are offering loans to cover the Basic Payment while farmers wait for it to arrive, in order to ease the financial burden.
“At the moment I just wish I knew when the Basic Payment was coming so I could have some certainty. Everything is functioning completely day-by-day at the moment.”
Mr Gorton says he often finds it better to discuss problems with non-farmers as speaking to other farmers can make individual situations seem worse. “Non-farmers don't have that baggage. Just try to speak to someone, as so many farmers are sitting alone just stewing. Just talk to whoever you are comfortable with,” he added.
“As farmers, we usually trudge along through difficulties but some serious decisions need to be made now. Farmers need to face up to the reality of the situation, but a lot are not doing so.”
As a member of the NFU Dairy Board, Mr Gorton says it has been an important source of communication. “The NFU has been very supportive and I hope that other farmers will make the most of this assistance.”
How to get help:
The FCN has a number of volunteers, all of whom have a close association with agriculture and rural living and many of them are farmers or retired farmers, with a number trained in Mental Health First Aid. Call the FCN helpline on: 03000 111 999 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Melanie's previous report on the problems facing the dairy industry:
TheCattleSite News Desk