WOODSTOCK — Some farmers argue that a rising paperwork burden is having negative mental health consequences for dairy farmers and is pushing some to quit.
“I was just talking to a fellow this morning who’s putting his quota up (for sale)… and that’s the main reason he’s getting out,” Uxbridge-area cattle drover Barclay Phoenix reported. “He can’t keep up with the paperwork and the demands, and he’s going to pack it in. He’s only 49 years old, milking 30 cows. I think he’s struggling with mental health.”
Barclay doesn’t produce milk anymore, though he sympathizes with the pressures placed on those who do. He partly blamed the paperwork burden on his own exit from milking cows after trying it for one year through a quota-leasing arrangement back in 2014. “The proAction and the somatic cell and all the BS, you just do so much to try and keep it all good. I said, ‘The heck with it.’”
Paperwork pressure is a key reason a lot of smaller producers have thrown in the towel, he opined.
Don Martin, of Woodstock, said he’s found peace of mind by ceasing to be a quota-holding dairy farmer. Instead, he’s come to a business arrangement with a young neighbour, accepted under DFO’s new entrant program, who now owns the production quota filled by the herd at Martin’s farm. While Martin still helps with daily chores and owns the facilities and some of the cattle, responsibility for the business — including paperwork — now rests with his female successor.
“What a relief,” Martin, 57, exclaimed. “I like cows. It’s all that other crap I wanted to get away from.”
“I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody, but in all likelihood … on the paperwork part of it alone, if you’re not big enough to hire someone to be secretary … if you can’t afford someone to do it for you, I don’t know when you’re going to find time to get it done on your own,” he said.
He agreed that paperwork can be a mental health stressor on the farm, when piled on top of other concerns like bookkeeping and debt. Add on the pressures of holding a second job to sustain the business — especially in the case of smaller dairy operations — and the prospect of outstanding paperwork and incomplete bookwork at the end of a long day can be a recipe for marital discord as well, he said.
He also highlighted the power relationship that DFO reps have with the dairy farms they inspect, agreeing an inspector’s impending visit might keep a farmer up at night. “That guy has a tremendous amount of power over you, and everyone of course is scared to death to say anything negative for fear that it’s going to come back on them.”
Farmers Forum columnist and Cornwall-area dairy farmer Angela Dorie also blames DFO for too much unnecessary paperwork on small farms. She said that while the work might only be as little as 10 minutes a day, farmers have so many other jobs to do that the last thing they want to do is paperwork. “So they say, ‘Screw it, I’ll do it later.’”
Paperwork has become the most common topic of conversation when dairy farmers meet, she said, noting that on top of bookkeeping and surveys from multiple groups each year, the DFO’s ProAction program has six sections forced on farmers that include the Environmental Farm Plan that starts next September. Each section has subsections that include paperwork. “It’s nitpicking,” Dorie says, adding that in one case on her farm an inspector found an empty medicine bottle in the barn and the protocol required them to write a corrective action to avoid that happening again.
“The thing that really ticks me off is, they say they’re concerned about farmer mental health, but by putting all this paperwork on us, they’re causing a lot of mental health problems,” said Winchester-area producer Eric Van Den Broek.
Van Den Broek said he might have spent 10 minutes a week on mandated paperwork a decade ago. “And now I have to do something everyday … to keep track of it and keep on top of it. Because once you leave it, you get so far behind you get overwhelmed,” he said, fingering the proAction and DairyTrace programs as cumbersome in particular.
As a gauge of the paperwork volume, Don Martin pointed to a successful new consultant offering CQM-related record keeping to dairy farmers in his area. She can’t keep up with demand for her services, he said.
London-area dairy farmer Norm McNaughton said that small farmers face the biggest paperwork frustrations. “Because you can’t not do it,” he said.
As for completing the mandated Environmental Farm Plan — another paperwork hurdle older farms may be facing for the first time as their exemption expires next September — one producer suggested hiring a consultant to complete the plan for about $800 as money well spent. McNaughton said he found completing the plan himself to be “90% common sense.”
Life-long dairy farmer Glen Burgess of Mildmay said the mandated paperwork is “definitely too much.” Paperwork has gone from “virtually nothing” at the start of his career to a daily chore by itself, he said. “If you do it every day for 10 or 20 minutes, it doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s something else you have to do instead of being able to focus on your dairy animals all the time.”
Asked about the mental health implications, Burgess commented: “It’s not helping any, that’s for sure.”
At Ronbeth Holsteins in Hastings, Carol Warner has handled the bookkeeping for decades but she couldn’t imagine keeping up with all paperwork requirements that have crept up through the years. All of that falls to her daughter. “At our age right now,” Warner said of herself and husband, Dean, “if it wasn’t for our kids really wanting to be in this, we would sell…. I have lost sleep over it.”
Pembroke dairy farmer Jake Whitmore highlighted traceability documentation as a particular challenge. “Moving cattle on and off farm has become a really big hassle,” Whitmore said, noting the reports required for every calf born, every cow that visits the fair and returns, every bull calf shipped out for veal and more. “Before, that was all tracked through Holstein Canada ear tags.”
He “absolutely” agreed that paperwork could exacerbate the mental health of farmers already busy with their regular work and contending with “the trials and tribulations of Mother Nature.”
Asked about paperwork degrading dairy farmers’ mental health, Douglas-area producer Terry Cull replied, “I wouldn’t doubt it. It just drives you nuts.”
DFO “chalks it all up to the ‘customer wants to know,’ said Cull, bookkeeper for the farm she operates with husband Preston. “But I’m sorry, I don’t think you want to know where my cow poops, do you? And that’s what it’s gotten down to.”
John Crowley happened to be doing calf registrations when Farmers Forum called. He described the farm’s required paperwork as “overwhelming” and increasing.
Some dairy farmers “are getting stressed out about it, for sure,” Crowley said. He knows of producers dropping out of Canwest DHI because of the monthly cost and paperwork related to that program.
As for completing the mandated environmental farm plan — another paperwork hurdle older farms may be facing for the first time as their exemption expires next September — Crowley advised hiring a consultant at a cost of about $800.