Larry Tranel is an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach dairy specialist. Lucky for farmers, he is also a psychologist.
“I probably spent half my time this past winter working on mental health with dairy farmers,” he said this week at the annual Four-State Dairy Nutrition & Management Conference at Dubuque’s Grand River Center.
Tranel’s presentation was titled, “Helping Dairy Farmers Manage Stress or Understanding Farm Stress.” He spoke to a room of mostly dairy nutritionists, who manage dairy cow diets for health and productivity.
More than 500 nutritionists, consultants and educators gathered in Dubuque for the conference, organized by the agricultural extension offices of the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin.
Tranel’s lesson on stress management was given in light of the current state of the dairy industry, which some have deemed a “crisis.”
The average U.S. dairy farmer lost $3.10 per hundred pounds of milk in 2018, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
Tranel attributes this to increased efficiency and animal comfort on farms leading to a surplus of milk.
“Part of the problem is that we just got so good at what we do,” he said.
But low-to-negative profit margins have led to farm closures. Since January 2018, Wisconsin has lost over 1,000 dairy herds.
When farmers cannot afford to stay in business or leave, they might seek an exit from decision-making altogether. Farmers as a whole have a high suicide rate, and the conversation surrounding dairy suicides is increasing, Tranel said.
Ken Swanson, of Freeport, Minn., is the director of ruminant nutrition at Famo Feeds. He said he sees stress ripple through all levels of the industry. He pointed to increasing consolidation, noting that there are fewer feed dealers and local feed mills than there once were.
“They’re long-term trends, but those same trends are accelerated because of the economics of the time,” he said at the conference.
Tranel said nutritionists needed to take care of themselves when working with stressed-out farmers, as well as support their clients. He told them to channel George Strait’s song “Write This Down” to help farmers make informed decisions and plans when emotions run high.
Christin Keeffer, a nutritionist from Lena, Ill., made sure to catch Tranel’s presentation.
“We work with the producers all the time, so I think it’s part of our due diligence that we support them through any troubled times,” she said.
Casey Lobdell, a recent University of Wisconsin-Platteville graduate working for Reddy Ag Service in Stitzer, Wis., feels farmers should be able to talk to their nutritionists.
“We as nutritionists in the field deal with that stuff a lot more now than we ever have before,” he said. “It’s more than just feeding cows.”