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11th June 2024

Struggle street: Dairy farmers face mounting pressures and mental health challenges

A new survey of 150 Australian dairy farmers has found more than half of dairy farmers identify the impact of dairy farming as a primary challenge to their mental health.

Dairy farming in Australia today is increasingly challenging, plagued by escalating operational costs, shrinking profit margins, labour shortages, unpredictable milk prices, complex production systems, unpredictable weather patterns, climate change pressures, minimal opportunities for rest, and the heavy burden of milking cows often twice daily, 365 days of the year.

Farm Transitions Australia is the nation’s first non-profit organisation and registered charity providing free support to struggling dairy and beef farmers looking to transition away from animal farming and transition to more sustainable forms of plant-focused agriculture, new business ventures, or career change. Farm Transitions Australia conducted a survey to understand better the challenges facing farmers and their readiness to transition. The survey was delivered through KG2, Australia’s largest independent agriculture market research company, and surveyed dairy farmers across the country.

Mental health concerns were prevalent, with 68.7 per cent acknowledging that the challenges they face in dairy farming negatively impacted their wellbeing. Some 51 per cent of participants said the impact of dairy farming is a primary challenge to their mental health. 

Farm Transitions Australia’s founder and director Krystal Camilleri said this is unsurprising.

“As a country, we have known for some time that our farmers are facing relentless challenges that impact their mental health,” Ms Camilleri said. “The average suicide rate of farmers is almost 60 per cent higher than that of non-farmers, according to the National Rural Health Alliance.

“This is a crisis. The challenges aren’t going anywhere, so we need to build a sustainable solution for our farmers.”

This involves helping farmers who are doing it tough and wish to transition or exit away from dairy and beef farming.

In early 2024, Farm Transitions Australia embarked on its pioneering journey by initiating the transition of a dairy farm with over 1,000 cows in New South Wales. Additionally, we are in the preliminary stages of assisting a beef farmer with over 1,000 head of cattle in New South Wales as they seek to transition away from beef farming and explore opportunities in agritourism.

“The dairy farmer we are working with is a prime example of the severe challenges and hardships many farmers face. Based in New South Wales, he has endured 3 major weather events of drought and flood, having to rebuild his farm each time. In 2022, he felt helpless as he watched his cows being washed away.

“As humans, we can endure extreme stress, but when it’s relentless, year on year, it takes a toll. Add to this the nature of farming – up at 3 am each morning, getting home after 8 pm, 60-hour working week, no such thing as a sick day or a holiday. Farming is beyond full-time.

“There are farmers who do well financially and can hire help to reduce pressures. Many, though, are at breaking point. Financially, they are either treading water or earning enough to cover costs. More than 54% are open to exploring alternatives to dairy farming but lack the time, resources, or support to start the transition or exit process.

“Our aim is to help farmers and empower them to find a future-focused solution, driving them towards their goals and improved wellbeing.

Notably, 36.1% of farmers expressed willingness to transition away from dairy farming. An additional 19% stated they were open to transitioning into horticultural or other business ventures if government support and assistance were provided. 

The survey also found more than half of the farmers surveyed did not convey positive satisfaction levels with dairy farming, and 54% indicated openness to exploring alternatives.

“These survey findings underscore the growing awareness and receptivity among dairy farmers to consider other paths amidst the evolving challenges in the industry,” Ms Camilleri said.

Farm Transitions Australia is eager to support beef and dairy farmers as they transition out of animal-based agriculture and into future-focused business models. Farm Transition Australia’s pioneer projects will create blueprints for future farm transitions.