28 Sep 2011

Push to improve dairy farmer health

1:44 pm on 28 September 2011

A rural health study has found dairy farmers often look after their herds better than themselves, and seldom have time to see a doctor.

The New Zealand Institute of Rural Health has completed the first year of an eight-year programme to identify the main health issues of dairy farmers, in order to better support them.

The institute set up free Health Pitstops at about 20 industry events, including at regional meetings and the national field days.

In the first year of the programme about 800 dairy farmers had health checks that included a blood test to check glucose and cholesterol levels, a blood pressure reading, and a Body Mass Index calculation.

Two-thirds were found to be at risk of cardiovascular disease, 50% had high cholesterol, 80% did not wear bike helmets on-farm, and 30% experienced pain that interfered with work or sleep.

On the more positive side, fewer than 10% were smokers and most either used sunscreen or wore a sunhat.

The institute's chief executive, Robin Steed, says farmers often don't have time to go to a doctor.

"I was surprised at how willingly many many farmers came - and that was both men and women of a great age range."

The study found reasonably high levels of stress and fatigue among dairy farmers, she said.

Ms Steed says the farmers who had health checks were given a written report and encouraged to take it to their doctor.

The institute is following these up and has so far found half have made improvements to their health.

She says more information will be gathered next year before support structures are set up.

The programme is funded through the farmer-paid levy to industry body DairyNZ, and the institute is working in partnership with AgResearch and Lincoln Univeristy.