The pressures of everyday life in the farming community are not the same as those experienced by people working off-farm, even though some of the pressures are common – for example, financial, work, community and family. The added pressures for the farmer include the weather, herd health, inspections, environment, etc.

The questions I pose are these:

  • Are farmers any different to people working in other sectors?
  • Do farmers take time off like people working in other sectors?
  • Do farmers have hobbies like people working in other sectors?
  • In my opinion, the answer is a very definite no. I say this because I believe we simply do not allow ourselves to have the same quality of life as those in other jobs. We don’t put enough value on time off for ourselves.

    Over the last five years since milk quotas have been removed, many dairy farmers have increased their operations, increasing their workload. Did any of those farmers factor in time off and their need to look after their well-being?

    Some people can be misguided and follow their peers into expansion

    I personally have been contacted by two such dairy farmers asking for help. This was not help to manage their farms better but rather help to manage their low mood and feelings of isolation. Both men described the dark place they found themselves in and I was genuinely concerned for them.

    We can point the finger of blame to organisations such as Teagasc, dairy co-ops, banks and so on for their encouragement and help in our expansion plans but, in my opinion, the blame lies with us dairy farmers as individuals.

    Some people can be misguided and follow their peers into expansion while not having it fully thought through for themselves. We have to ask ourselves about the downsides of expansion on our farms. What are the pitfalls?

    Some dairy farmers are risk-takers but some are not

    There’s added work, longer working hours, difficulty in attracting, retaining and managing employees, building bigger units, financial management, greater challenges around herd health, to name but a few .

    Some dairy farmers are risk-takers but some are not. Risk-takers will have better mental strength to carry the pressure that comes with expanding and building any business. Non-risk-takers will surely struggle to cope with the burden that growing a farm can bring.

    Back to the two dairy farmers who contacted me for help and support. Both men highlighted one thing – put simply, they both have no life outside of their work life on the farm.

    These farmers were shocked to hear that not all dairy farmers are slaves to their farms. Most of the successful farmers in this country have made time to pursue sporting activities, hobbies, holidays and time with their families and friends away from their farms.

    It is not a sign of weakness or laziness to hand over the reins of your farm to someone else so you can recharge your batteries and come back in the farm gate refreshed and better able to deal with what lies ahead.

    The most important thing before spring 2021 starts is to sit down and compile a plan of where you are now and where you want to go. The distance between your dreams and reality is called action.

    In my opinion, the principles of wellness include communication, healthy eating, rest and time off. Are you getting all four?

    The benefits of hobbies are:

  • Good for your physical health.
  • Good for your mental health.
  • Improve creativity.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Strengthen relationships.
  • Improve your career.
  • Transition you to retirement.
  • The high achievers in life are people who have an open mind, are socially active and are good listeners. Disregard what your neighbour thinks when he sees you out cycling or golfing or in the park with your children. They are the one who wishes they had that time.


    Teagasc and private consultants have discussion groups going all around the country. I’d encourage farmers to join one or even two as they are excellent platforms to meet people and share tricks of the trade. Zoom is an excellent platform to join in on excellent webinars that are well advertised.

    There are so many clubs and societies around the country, from book clubs to cooking clubs and everything in-between – get out there and join one. You will make lots of friends outside of the farming community and then you will realise that there is more to life outside the farm gate.

    New Zealand

    The health statistics among the New Zealand farming community are not good:

  • 25% of farmers are not getting enough rest.
  • 70% of farmers have a waist band circumference which indicates they are overweight.
  • 91% feel engaged in their work but 9% feel not engaged.
  • 55% admitted to poor on farm safety habits.
  • Changes in lifestyle can make a big difference to wellness and wellbeing. Similar stats are not available for Ireland’s farming sector, which I think is wrong. In New Zealand, Dairy NZ (Teagasc equivalent) and other bodies collect health and well-being data from farmers at open days and events.

    There were 421 suicides in the Republic of Ireland in 2019. That is 69 more compared to 2018. Suicide has increased by 19% and, unfortunately, the picture for 2020 will probably not be much better. Figure 1 portrays a frightening statistic.

    Is there enough done in this country to help those in trouble in the farming community? In my opinion, the answer is no. There is a general lack of resources for farmers to deal with many issues. New Zealand is ahead of us in this regard.

    The Dairy NZ website is an excellent site that covers everything from business, environment, people, feed, animal, milking, etc, and it also covers farmer well-being.

    Different states of wellness

    Below are the different states of wellness, adapted from Dairy NZ, which people will bounce between over time. We should not expect to remain in one place, but should strive for the “good stress” end of the scale.

    Good stress

    “I’m excited about being on farm today. I love what I do.”

    Good stress occurs when the gap between what one has and what one wants is slightly pushed, but not overwhelmed. The goal is not too far out of reach but is still slightly more than one can handle. This fosters challenge and motivation since the goal is in sight.

    Example: You are facing a wet and challenging spring. You have to make some critical decisions. Working through the options and each scenario is encouraging, and makes you feel like the end is in sight. This motivates you to carry on and get to the solution.

    Excessive stress

    “I don’t really want to deal with the farm. I’m dreading what it will throw my way today.”

    Excessive stress is stress which causes more negative thoughts and feelings than positive challenge and motivation.

    Example: In bed at night, there are so many things going over and over in your head; growth rates are poor, cows are back in milk, we have a herd test next week and nobody wants to buy the calves. Everything piles on top of each other and you start to get a feeling of helplessness, like it’s getting out of control. Despite this, you carry on each day.


    “I don’t feel like I can cope with the farm today, but I know I have to.”

    Burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged excessive stress.

    Example: You have been under financial stress for such a long time that you just don’t have any energy left to deal with the issues, but you plod along and do the best you can.

    Mental illness

    “I can’t think straight. I don’t know where to begin with running this farm. I just want to stay in bed.”

    A mental or bodily condition marked by disorganisation of personality, mind and emotions to seriously impair normal functioning of the person.

    Any of us can end up in this situation if we get too overwhelmed. It’s important to get help though if you feel you’ve found yourself at this place. Help can come in many forms.


    “I’m useless and a waste of time. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

    If you’re feeling like this, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. Talking to someone is so important. There is help. Many people have felt this way and found their way out.

    If this is an emergency and you feel you or someone else is at risk or harm, phone 999 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

    10 signs of illness and burnout

    These can be in yourself, family and farm team. Be especially aware if you notice a number of these happening at once.

    1 Continually tired and run down.

    2 Often sick with colds, flus or tummy bugs.

    3 Constantly irritable.

    4 Quick and noticeable weight loss or weight gain.

    5 Dependent on coffee to get through the day (more than four coffee drinks every day).

    6 Frequent arguing with friends, family and work colleagues.

    7 Making self-degrading comments (eg I’m useless, I’m going nowhere, I can’t do anything right).

    8 Sudden change in mood, personality or behaviour which lasts for several weeks.

    9 Lack of appetite.

    10 Prolonged disinterest in jobs or things which once created engagement and satisfaction.

    If you think someone is on their way to burnout or depression:

  • Be on their side – let them talk.
  • Show understanding and sympathy.
  • Don’t judge them.
  • Avoid offering advice.
  • Avoid making comparisons.
  • Don’t try to minimise their pain or act like it’s not a big deal.
  • If you’re worried someone may already be depressed, encourage them to speak to their doctor.
  • If you are worried someone is suicidal, get professional help. Call a crisis line for advice and referrals. Encourage the person to see a mental health professional, help locate a treatment facility and/or take them to a doctor’s appointment.
  • Niall Callanan is a time-efficient dairy farmer who has expanded his dairy herd to 250 cows without negatively affecting family life.