One Welfare: The next step in achieving good animal welfare
by Barbara Johnstone Grimmer, P. Ag.
from Sheep Canada (2016) Volume 31 Issue 4 pages 15-17/
Fifteen years ago, we had a photojournalist from Australia come to our farm. She grew up on a large sheep station with thousands of wool-type sheep in the Outback. She told us many stories of raising sheep in Australia, but one story had a long time impact on me. She told us about a prolonged drought they experienced, how it impacted the feed and water supply for their sheep, and how devastating it was for her father who had to shoot and kill many of his sheep as instructed by the government.
When we think about animal welfare, we may not consider how the health and welfare of our livestock may affect the mental health of the farmer or rancher, or conversely what impact human well-being may have on the welfare of our livestock. A lack of information on this topic is part of it, but also privacy, the expectation to move ahead and shoulder the burden, and the stigma of showing weakness especially around mental health issues, have kept farmer stress hidden from view. In fact human stress on the farm has significant effects on families, communities, future generations and on animal welfare. It was in the 1980s while living in the US that I was exposed to severe farmer stress, as many farmers endured droughts, floods and staggering interest rates with resultant economic hardships. Several international alarms of suicide in farmers and ranchers brought the issue of farmer stress into the spotlight. In many countries, farming has been identified as high risk for stress, with a higher suicide rate than most other occupations.
In our modern world focused on providing good animal welfare, how is this to occur if we are not taking care of the well-being of livestock producers? The well-being and mental health of farmers and ranchers has been linked to animal welfare with the term “One Welfare”. Many public health agencies and animal health and welfare groups have embraced the concept of “One Welfare” as an adjunct to “One Health”.
The first International One Welfare Conference was held September 26-28 in Winnipeg, Manitoba to bring together the many groups interested in this topic. The conference was organized by the government of Manitoba, funded by Growing Forward 2, with partnering sponsor the National Farm Animal Health and Welfare Council. Other sponsors included the Public Health Agency of Canada, Manitoba Pork, the CFIA, Canadian Red Cross and various agricultural commodity and health organizations. There were speakers from Ireland, Scotland, Australia, US and Canada providing research results and insights into this complex issue. Topics included animal hoarding, animal abuse and neglect, psychosocial health and agriculture, education campaigns, industry initiatives, compassion fatigue by first responders and veterinarians, and how do we work in a collaborative way for the best possible outcomes for people and the animals in their care.
I attended the conference, and happened to sit next to Michael Rosmann, a farmer, clinical psychologist, professor and writer from Iowa. His life’s work has been dedicated to promote services that protect the welfare of farmers and ranchers, particularly regarding their behavioural health. He attributed his success in this field more to his farming background than anything else. It is important to farmers that counsellors have a knowledge of agriculture and its challenges. This observation was repeated in the conference, and in research around the world. According to the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association National Stress Survey in 2005, most mental health practitioners lack farm knowledge, while the triggers of farm stress are different from general public stress. Farmers and ranchers in rural communities are hesitant to seek help because of the stigma attached and the tendency of people to know everyone’s business in small communities.
Successful mental health programs are grassroots efforts that start with raising the awareness of family members, friends and farm organizations so that they can identify and support farmers and ranchers under stress early on, and build a cohesive network that has links to multiple partners and agencies who can take the support to the next level if needed.
Stress to farm life is not new. Sheep producers are impacted by economic and market fluctuations, prices and input costs, flock depopulations from disease outbreaks such as scrapie, emerging diseases such as bluetongue, the collateral damage of diseases such as BSE, resistance to medications, lack of farm labour, isolation, government regulations, lack of cohesion and support within the sheep industry, lack of veterinarians in isolated areas, climate extremes with impacts such as droughts, wildfires, floods, and crop losses, an ageing farm population, consumer misconceptions and expectations, etc.
A recent study by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton of the Ontario Veterinary College of the University of Guelph reinforces the findings of Canadian studies in 1993 and 2005, indicating a high percentage of farmers feel stress, anxiety and depression. Results from the study are currently being analyzed further, with the expectation of establishing a provincial stress support program for Ontario. Canada has no national stress phone line for farmers, but some provinces have farmer stress lines (i.e. Saskatchewan Farm Stress Line) and community stress or suicide lines. Canada could take a page from other countries who are ahead of us in this area. Examples are New York Farm Net, Scotland’s “How are Ewe?” program initiated by a young farmer group, Australia’s “R U OK Day”. In the competitive business of farming, it is important to show compassion and work together as a supportive industry and be less self-absorbed. Already there have been positive effects to these campaigns. In recent years a critical drop in milk prices in Australia resulted in herd dispersals and farm foreclosures, but armed with an education program and some practical tools, farmers provided emotional support to each other and reached out, aware of the impact of the economic and psychosocial stress on their neighbours.
It is disturbing that many efforts in Canada to study and deal with stress in agriculture are well-meaning and show promise, but fizzle out due to the short term nature of government funding. PrioNet Canada is one example, where long term work was needed but the network was disbanded after a few years of good progress. Part of its work was following community impacts of BSE, not just financial impacts but on the ground long term chronic stress. Although it was thought to be primarily a cattle problem, BSE heavily impacted the sheep industry. I remember taking sheep to auction shortly after BSE in Canada was announced, and receiving $10 per ewe. Randy Eros, Canadian Sheep Federation chair in 2004, said the sheep industry was hit harder than beef. About 140,000 lambs destined for US markets had to be sold domestically when the US border closed to all ruminants from Canada. Prices plummeted. The CSF requested that a scrapie eradication plan be put in place with the assistance of the government. It is fortunate that today we do have a scrapie eradication plan. We need to be vigilant regarding emerging issues than can not only impact the viability and profitability of the sheep industry, but also the health and welfare of our sheep farmers and ranchers and their stock.
The Guelph Study shows that many Canadian farmers feel stress, indicating a vulnerability of farmers to the next crisis. Although other countries have been building resources to improve resiliency in the farm community, Canada lacks committed resources to help farmers and ranchers, resulting in delays in getting help. The One Welfare conference was a good first step to help Canada move forward into a One Welfare Initiative which can increase the awareness of stress in the farm community and its impacts on farm families, farm profitability and human and animal welfare and find ways to improve all-around wellness.