Switch to robotics can affect both farmer and cow health

Study opens doors for further research into production practices

There could be many reasons why automated milking and feeding are associated with improved farmer mental health.

It may have opened as many questions as it answered, but the lead author of a recent study on the well-being of both humans and animals after they have transitioned to automated milking and feeding systems hopes the work eventually leads to a better understanding of mental health.

Why it matters: There’s more interest in farmer mental health and that’s leading to research on the factors that affect it.

The study was conducted by University of Guelph post-doctoral student Dr. Meagan King under the direction of Dr. Trevor DeVries. King has since been named associate professor in Animal Welfare and Physiology at the University of Manitoba. She told Farmtario she’s seeking out connections at various institutions to hopefully delve into some of the questions raised in her study.

While one 2018 study tracked human well-being through the transition to robotic milking, this was the first Canadian research to also include measures of cow health and how all three factors interact.

King and her team visited 28 Ontario farms with 45 to 160 cows to assess lameness and body condition score, as well as monitor management practices. They analyzed milking robot data for milk yield and somatic cell count. And they followed that up with online surveys exploring farmer mental health in four aspects: stress, anxiety, depression and mental resilience (the ability to cope with hardship or difficulty).

“Overall, the improved mental health of dairy farmers using robotic milking systems was associated with a lower prevalence of severe lameness and greater milk protein percentage,” stated an article about the study published in the peer-reviewed Universities Federation for Animal Welfare scientific journal.

Somatic cell count data did not reveal a noticeable relationship. But automated feeding, according to the study, added another layer of insurance against mental health risks.

“Farmers who added automated feeding systems to robotic milking systems reported lower stress, anxiety and depression and greater emotional resilience than those who used robotic milking systems and traditional feeding methods,” said a news release about the study.

It’s a relatively new field of study. King cited only the 2018 University of Calgary example of previous Canadian assessments of automation and farmer well-being.

In that study, 97 per cent of farmer respondents identified increased flexibility with time as a reason for enhanced quality of life when transitioning to robotic milkers. Other reasons included “work is less stressful and less physically demanding” (37 per cent), easier employee management (14 per cent) and better herd management (11 per cent).

But when asked about other research, she said “there have been relatively few studies looking at dairy producer well-being or perceived quality of life with automation, and I haven’t seen any looking at this for other commodities.”

King stressed her study could not confirm “causation” for the factors of human mental well-being and cattle health, but it does show an “associative” relationship. In that way, it opens the door for research in several directions.

Most obviously, she would love to see someone explore “the chicken and egg question about whether mental health affects animal health, or vice versa, or whether it is a cycle.”

With this goal in mind, she has begun working with University of Guelph farmer mental health specialists Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and Dr. Briana Hagen to develop “qualitative” questions for a farmer mental health survey — in contrast to the “quantitative” (rate your response from 1-5) queries from the recent study.

But among the other uncertainties raised by King’s study are whether there are other stress-relieving factors in the barn — other than a decrease in lameness and enhanced labour efficiency — that can contribute to farmer mental health.

When other transitions take place in dairy or other commodities, such as moving from constricted to free-range housing or conventional to automated feeding, are there similar effects on human mental health?

What about marketing realities? Are farmers in supply-management sectors better served because their guaranteed cash flow allows them to take on technological upgrades with a lower risk of financial strain?

One of the few previous studies King and her team cited for serving as some inspiration was a project in Wales in which farmers who undertook soil and water conservation practices recorded better mental health, on average, than those who did not.

“We are currently applying for funding to look at all of the questions you’ve asked since there isn’t much research available,” she said.

King, who wasn’t raised on a farm but was inspired by a friend’s veterinarian father when growing up in Edmonton, says her goal is “to help both people and their animals.”

“On the one hand, I think getting more research done is important,” she said, “but on the other hand what’s really important is getting the information from that research back to people, especially if there’s something we learn that will benefit them.”

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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