In a period of depressed milk commodity prices across the board for all of American agriculture, farmers are finding themselves working even harder to be the best managers they can be.
    Even though striving to improve a farm’s management and business acumen is a good thing, not getting adequate rest and sleep can lead to mishaps on the farm that could have been avoided otherwise, said John Shutske, University of Wisconsin-Extension farm safety specialist.
    “While stress is part of everyday life, farmers and their families need to recognize that too much stress can be deadly,” Shutske said. “Frequently, people think if they work harder, problems will eventually go away.”
    That train of thought, Shutske said, contributes to a vicious cycle of stress and burnout that can cause either a mechanical or emotional breakdown. He added that factors people can’t control cause them the most stress.
    “Farmers face a variety of stressful things, many beyond their control,” Shutske said. “Two prime examples are weather and markets, both of which directly affect a farm family’s livelihood.”
    Dairy farming is one of a handful of remaining occupations where a majority of the work is outside, which in the Upper Midwest can mean cold stress and frostbite in the winter or heat stress in the summer. On top of weather, farmers also face intense emotional and mental strain during hard economic times.
    “Families facing the possibility of having to give up farming are often torn,” Shutske said. “They face the pressure of leaving a long farming tradition that goes back many generations. Some people feel like a failure even though they are in a situation that’s beyond their control.”
    Because economic and emotional stress are prevalent, farmers are more likely to be not only tired from stress and not getting enough sleep, but also distracted. During busy seasons such as planting or harvest, it is common for farmers to work upwards of 100 hours a week for several weeks straight.
    “They are more likely to make critical mistakes, perform tasks out of sequence or forget important procedures such as turning off a rotation machine part before servicing it,” Shutske said. “I once had a farmer tell of being so preoccupied during harvest that he found himself on top of the combine’s corn header late at night trying to unplug it with the header still engaged and the engine running at full idle. He suddenly snapped out of this trance-like state and realized he was inches from possible death.”
    While the markets and weather are out of a farmer’s control, there are measures they can take to reduce stress and prevent burnout. Many of these measures include correcting safety hazards, which may cause accidents and further stress down the road, making downtime a priority and taking care of their health.
    “Take time to make purposeful, concrete changes to reduce farm hazards. It’s impossible to be stress free, so make sure you have backup measures in place. These include machinery guards, rollover protection on tractors, and machinery lighting and marking for road travel,” Shutske said. “Tractor rollovers and roadway collisions are among the greatest farming hazards. Also, be extremely careful with your kids. Take precautions to insure that teens operating equipment or doing chores have the appropriate mental and physical maturity to do the job safely.”
    Last, but certainly not least, farmers need to make time for taking care of themselves whether it’s carving out an hour for a doctor’s appointment, eating good food, getting enough sleep, or taking an afternoon away with family members or friends. It’s hard to take care of others if people doesn’t take care of themselves first.
    “Get regular checkups. Let your doctor know how you feel physically and emotionally. Take the time to eat right,” Shutske said. “No farmer would dream of putting poor fuel in a tractor, yet during busy seasons we may eat junk food on the run or, worse yet, not eat at all.”
    Exercise and humor are also natural stress relievers, as is communication with loved ones. All too often, it is common for those under severe duress to withdraw from those they love the most.
    “Planning during stressful times is extremely important. Set personal, financial and family goals, and use the variety of community resources wisely,” Shutske said. “Too often, farmers think things will simply work out. Sometimes they do, but it usually takes a proactive and planned approach.”