ORNO, Maine — Successful farmers, whether they raise cattle, sheep, horses or other agricultural species, are generally very good at anticipating and solving problems. For example, those of us in northern regions prepare for our extended winters by stockpiling feed, battening down our barns, and keeping snowdrifts out of the dooryard. With the looming disruptions that could potentially occur due to the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, animal managers should start to think about getting ready for on-farm disruptions in much the same way that we prepare for winters in New England.
During the upcoming months, a scenario that may occur on family farms, especially on those with older owners, is temporary incapacitation or off-farm travel of the primary animal caretaker(s). While the farm’s infrastructure would still be available for animal care, properly trained individuals may not be available to complete some or all of the daily chores. With proper planning and smart use of technology, animal managers can anticipate and solve these potentially serious problems.
Consider adopting the following proactive measures to keep your animals healthy and to ensure that essential activities are completed during the next months:
1) Prioritize Daily Activities. Which chores are critical to animal health and survival of the farm? Could some daily activities be postponed? Use our Prioritized Farm Chore Checklist (fillable PDF).
2) Record Standard Operating Procedures for all of the routine procedures, safety practices, and sources of consumable goods that are necessary for the maintenance of animal welfare.
3) Establish “Remote” Means of Communication. These may be used to document that critical work has been completed, to identify animals that might need additional care, and to rapidly respond to problems (i.e., fence down, broken equipment).
4) Recruit a Back-Up Workforce. Identify and train off-farm personnel (including family members) who would be willing and able to take over in an emergency. Set up procedures that ensure a safe work environment.
5) Restrict Visitors to Your Farm. Make a list of regular visitors to your farm or home, and decide which ones are essential. Set rules for the admission of essential visitors that minimize the risk of inadvertently infecting workers with Coronavirus.
Make a list of routine activities that would not get done if the owners or current workers got sick or had to leave the area to take care of sick relatives. Each item on this list should be prioritized 1) according to its potential impact on animal welfare, and 2) by how its loss would affect farm production/profitability.
Could Parts of Your Farm Operation Be Simplified?
Many farmers use intensive animal management systems to increase farm efficiency. If labor becomes limited, consider temporarily stepping down to less labor-intensive alternatives. For example, steers in an intensively managed dry lot could be moved to a pasture and given access to round bale hay. The animals’ weight gain might decrease, but less-skilled workers should be able to keep them healthy.
Are You Prepared to Provide Workers with Accurate Descriptions of Important Procedures on Your Farm?
Most of the animal producers are multi-taskers who are intimately familiar with the intricacies of their farm. This will probably not be the case for workers who are brought in on an emergency basis. Any organizing that you can do in advance will help. Now is the perfect time to record all of your daily work details by writing everything down, and technology can help you to do this. Use your cell phone to video record your daily activities while narrating important details. These videos can be used later to formulate written S.O.P.s (Standard Operating Procedures) and electronic visual guides.
For more information on developing an S.O.P. for your farm, see University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin #1064, Standard Operating Procedures and Their Use on Farms.
What Are the Important Questions on Your Farm?
Try to anticipate questions that might come up when a neighbor is taking care of your farm. Where does the hay/grain come from, and who could be called to order it? Does your farm have an account to pay for feed and other commodities? What is the contact information for your veterinarian, for the company that maintains your equipment, and for the artificial insemination technician? All of these need to be available as hard copies, and should also be accessible via cell phone.
Setting up detailed S.O.P.s can be a lot of work—that is why many farms do not have them! Remember that any work that you invest in organization will benefit you not only for this upcoming disruption, but also for other unanticipated emergencies, and even for scheduled work breaks such as planned vacations when you need to train a “farm-sitter.”
How Can You Anticipate and Prevent Problems on Your Farm?
Once you are not on-farm and are relying on less-experienced workers to care for your animals, you will want to have safeguards in place that can “automatically” avoid preventable disasters. There are many aspects of a farm operation where a lapse of competent management may threaten the well-being of your stock. You have an obligation to your animals to identify and mitigate these risks. For example, you may have a flock of sheep on a rotational pasture system, and you rely on a high-voltage electric fence to keep out predators. The tolerance for error here is zero, because one night without an adequately charged fence may result in predation losses. The risk to animal welfare from fencing failure may be eliminated by asking workers to bring in animals every night, and animal movement could be made more efficient by setting up a fenced runway between your fields and your barn. Alternatively, you might be able to safely leave your animals out overnight by installing fence voltage monitors that light up as long as the voltage remains above a critical level, or better yet, that report outages to your cell phone. At the very least, having a working fence voltage tester, training workers to properly use it, and testing electric fences at the end of each day are common sense practices to prevent a breach in fencing by either livestock or predators. Since even the most robust technology can fail, you also need to communicate to your workers that 24/7 electrification of your perimeter fence is critical to your animals’ well being!
How Can You Keep Track of Activities When You Are Off-Farm?
Communication with all of the workers on your farm is essential for maintaining animal health and productivity, and we are very lucky to be living in the age of the “Smart Phone.” Cellular phones are valuable for voice or text communication, and can also be used to better organize and document important events that occur during the workday.
On the University of Maine’s teaching farms, scores of college students work together to care for our dairy cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep, and our population of workers is constantly changing. In an effort to efficiently respond to animal-related issues on the farm, we have always required students to complete written chore notes using on-farm paper records, but time-sensitive concerns were not always communicated efficiently to the responsible staff member. We solved this problem a few years ago by setting up private Google Groups pages for each of our herds/flocks, and telling students that “a chore did not happen unless it was recorded on Google Groups.” Once it is set up, this free service will not only record all pertinent events on the farm in one cell phone-accessible place but will send automatic email alerts to everyone involved.
Video surveillance can be an invaluable resource for monitoring animals. It may be used to remotely identify animals that are not behaving normally or to ensure that critical operations are being completed (Have the animals been fed? Are the drinkers clean and running? Are ewes going into labor? Which cow is in heat? Is an animal down?).
How Can You Find Trustworthy Workers for Your Farm?
Where should a farm owner go to find temporary workers with the necessary skills to properly care for their animals? Many of us have neighboring farmers who also take care of animals. Think seriously about setting up a meeting with your neighbors to discuss how a group of common-minded local farmers might be able to cover each other’s emergency needs.
Regional horse or livestock breed organizations, Cooperative Extension staff members and State Veterinarians’ offices could potentially match farmers with skilled workers by alerting their constituent groups and developing resource-sharing electronic bulletin boards. Agricultural high schools, Future Farmers of America / 4-H, and University Animal Science programs may be good sources of trained agricultural workers in your community. If all of these groups invested some time today into developing worker-related resources, it might greatly ease any potential emergency situations in the future.
I encourage you to review your farm’s operations, identify all of your vital daily activities, and then set plans in place to allow their completion in the event of an emergency. Getting organized now will protect your animals and your business from future uncertainty and will allow you to sleep better at night if farm labor becomes an issue.
Additional Note: This document was designed to initiate positive actions and discussions that will improve your farm’s response to an emergency situation, but it is certainly not an all-inclusive guide to emergency preparedness. Additional information on emergency preparedness for animal farmers can be found in University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin #1212, Dairy and Livestock Farm Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Guide for Maine Farmers.
Developed by Jim Weber, DVM, PhD, Associate Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Attending Veterinarian, University of Maine, and Richard Brzozowski, PhD, Colt Knight, PhD, and Anne Lichtenwalner, DVM, PhD, University of Maine Cooperative Extension
–University of Maine Cooperative Extension