Mental health in dairy farming

New research investigates mental health in dairy farming

Since starting in the industry 40 years ago, Dorset farmer George Holmes has seen the number of dairy farmers drop dramatically. In research for his MBA, George is investigating the impact of poor mental health in UK dairy farmers and whether it contributes to farmers leaving the industry.

George began his dairying career with his first farm tenancy aged just 23, and over the course of his career he has built a substantial dairy business. Consisting of three units in Dorset, the business manages nearly 1,000 cows and 800 acres of arable land.

With his son now in charge of the day-to-day running, George decided to fulfil a long-term interest to study for an MBA at Bournemouth University. As part of his degree, George is undertaking a mixed-method research project to understand more about the mental health of dairy farmers and how mental wellbeing could be better supported.

“Over my career, I’ve struggled a bit with my own mental wellbeing,” says George. “While for me it was always manageable, I became increasingly aware other people in the industry were also struggling and didn’t have the support they needed. Sitting on the Arla board of representatives also gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges facing other farmers and it became clear to me the industry has a serious problem with mental wellbeing.”

Before starting his study, George carried out some background research. “I discovered that while there are some studies looking at why farmers exit the industry, there is no previous piece of work asking whether farmers were giving up because of mental health concerns. From my personal experiences and conversations I’d had with other farmers, I was interested in exploring this idea further.”

George put together a survey for both active dairy farmers and those who had already left the industry. He asked about the pressures they were facing, the impact this had on their mental wellbeing, and how it affected their thoughts about staying in the industry.

“I was pleased to receive almost 500 replies to the survey, with over 400 from active dairy farmers. This represents the thoughts of over 5% of UK dairy farmers, so the results should provide fascinating insights into the pressures affecting the farming community and what support farmers believe they need.”

The next step for George is analysing the survey results and conducting in-depth interviews with a mixed demographic of farmers who completed the survey.

“The interviews will add a layer of qualitative data to my research. I’m also interested in talking to those who said they’d never considered giving up dairy farming to see if I can find out something about their resilience compared to those who have thought about leaving the industry.

“It will also be interesting to speak to dairy farmers who have exited the industry to see what can be learned and understand if there is anything that might have made things easier or stopped them leaving.”

George hopes his research will ultimately help to improve mental wellbeing in dairy farmers by understanding the effect of specific challenges they face and what could help support them.

“The industry needs more joined-up thinking to solve the significant problem of poor mental health. Research indicates a multi-pronged approach tailored to individual farmers. I’m hoping the results from this research forms another component in finding the solution.”

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Image credit: Arla