What does ‘quality of life’ really mean on your dairy farm?


During the course of any routine day on a dairy farm, we must answer countless questions. Some are quickly addressed, others may be pending more information, but the more difficult ones require time to analyze our goals and values.

So let me pose just one more: How do you define the quality of your life on a dairy farm, your social sustainability at the farm level?

It appears that research has spent a great deal of time and money defining a dairy farm’s economic and environmental aspects of sustainability, but when it comes to the social element, there are very few existing tools that help us evaluate our quality of life.


In a recent issue of Hoard’s Dairyman (beyond the stories on milk pricing, inbreeding, and how to handle cattle), I analyzed the intuitive results of this topic.

A research team including Valerie Belanger, a PhD. student at Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada, had developed a self-assessment tool to measure the social sustainability of dairy farmers in their region. It was a survey developed by a panel of 25 experts who were farmers, researchers, and stakeholders.

The panel’s first step had been to list all the possible indicators that could be measured to evaluate a farm’s sustainability. They began with some 200 possibilities and then shortened the list to 30 of the top-rated items.

Each of these was then discussed with 12 of the 25 panel members and they decided which should be kept and how to rank the importance of them on the questionnaire. The final survey was given to 34 farmers in the province of Quebec. They, in turn, scored the following social sustainability components.

Quality of Life (work and workload, holidays, social support, health and stress and others);

Social Integration (contribution in local service, the ag neighborhood, relationships and others);

Farm Succession (retirement planning);

Entrepreneurship (education, advisory services, human resource management and others).

I felt that it was particularly interesting to realize that Belanger was seeking possible answers as to why the number of dairy farms in Quebec was so drastically declining in the past three years.

“This is a major concern,” she said. “Defining a sustainable agricultural system becomes a real necessity.”

You can read more about how data was collected and the results of the research on page 224 of the March 25 issue of the magazine. One of her objectives is to make this tool more user-friendly and readily available on the Internet.

Belanger also feels that the social aspects of the survey are universal. They can be used everywhere as dairy producers continue to deal with the same major issues.

Ask yourself

Take some time to look at the survey information and come up with your own answers.

I ask you to “picture” the next generation. Does your vision include them on the farm? Does it ALSO include them satisfied and happy with the quality of their life?

Working with dairy youth programs, I attempt to answer those questions daily in the types of programming that are being developed. It was the driving force behind our recent COWreer Expo and it is why we seek students in our Animal Science classrooms that have both traditional and non-traditional backgrounds.

For the next century and the next generation, we must consider how they will define quality of life to sustain the dairy industry and agriculture in general.

It is more than sustenance that contributes to sustainability. Belanger states that a farm must be viable, livable, transmissible, and ecologically reproducible.

Ongoing challenge

What an enormous challenge this is! As we continue to unravel the mysteries, we are going to need more than questionnaires to help us define sustainability.

The events of the past two years have given us cause to stop and ponder the quality of our life. Along the way, it would be good if we could take time to recognize some life-altering moments that provide the secure notion that dairy farming is indeed sustainable AND that we can feel satisfied with the quality of life that a dairy farm offers.

It is more than just a “job,” it is what sustains us to succeed.


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Bonnie Ayars is a dairy program specialist at Ohio State University, coordinating all state 4-H dairy programs and coaching the OSU collegiate and 4-H dairy judging teams. She and her husband also own and operate a Brown Swiss and Guernsey cattle farm. In 1994, Bonnie was named Woman of the Year at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.



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