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Strategies so that stress doesn’t become a setback on the farm



What happens when you face changing markets, consumers keep asking questions, costs go sky high, and you can’t find good employees? Stress. It’s your body’s natural reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. Sometimes it looks like a cat who chewed on Christmas lights; other times, it’s more subtle.

Stress creates chemical reactions in our body; cortisol levels rise, blood sugar increases, blood pressure rises, and more. Chronic stress can lead to your brain shrinking from the constant flow of cortisol. This clearly illustrates why we need to find ways to release or “let go of” cortisol. Think of animal comfort; if you don’t address stressful transitions, they don’t perform as well and are at greater risk of disease. The same is true for humans.

What are some signs that you have too much cortisol from chronic stress? Migraines, racing heartrate, losing appetite, trouble sleeping, loss of sex drive, eating too much, inability to think clearly, poor memory, eating/drink more, decision fatigue, or apathy are on the list. If you’re visiting farms and see a rapid change in a producer’s weight, appearance of farm, irritability, or alcohol/drug use — it might be time to talk about their well-being.

You can take action to manage your own cortisol levels. Stress is what it is; the key is releasing cortisol from your body so you’re not suffering the consequences of chronic stress. Different techniques work for different people — just as animals react differently. Carie Telgen, past president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, eases stressors as a DVM through online counseling and mentorship in the veterinary community to feel more connected by sharing stories with like-minded people.

Kansas farmer Orrin Holle takes the entire family and crew on a guided fishing trip after their highly stressful wheat harvest is complete. “It gets us off the farm for no-stress fishing. The guide provides everything, and we just show up. It allows us to relax and our crew to know they’re appreciated.”

Many in our business point to quiet time. Some like daily time to reflect, pray, have a mindful minute, or meditate — all of which help address cortisol. Others prioritize taking Sunday off, aside from chores, as a day of rest and recovery.

Which of these ideas help you release cortisol, or lead your team to better address their stress?

  • Laugh. It’s the most natural stress reliever. Experts recommend you laugh 15x/day. Engage employees in this for a more joyful workplace.
  • Create team meetings where people can openly share their challenges. It will provide you a window into your employees’ lives to proactively help your employees and family members address additional stress.
  • Change your breath to signal your body to let go of cortisol by singing at the top of your lungs driving down the road or yelling at your sports team.
  • Model self-care. Caring for yourself is as important as crop or animal care.
    • Get enough sleep. I know it’s not likely this will happen, but sleep is the TOP way to help mental wellness. If you have a problem falling or staying asleep for more than two weeks, see your doctor. You cannot make solid business decisions if you’re not regularly getting at least seven hours of sleep.
    • Balancing family and personal time with work hours. It is NOT a badge of honor to work 70 hours/week — you are likely damaging long-term productivity. Remember that happy, productive employees need balance — including business owners.
    • Eating well. Not perfectly, but do you know your ideal ration as much you know about the cattle nutrition?
    • Exercising: dance in the office or at home. Take a walk to the back 40. Cycle. Go to the gym. Have a walking daily meeting. Exercise = cortisol release.
  •  Create. Cook great food. Craft. Enjoy music — either listening or playing it. Paint. Woodwork. Using your brain to create — even if only 10 minutes — disengages your brain from the stress.
  • Give employees the opportunity to serve in their community. After a long-time employee died by suicide, Michigan dairy farmer Ashley Kennedy gives salaried team members a service day or two each year.
  • Don’t judge yourself for reactions — stress is a natural occurrence. Be transparent with others to help normalize the conversation around stress and mental well-being.
  • Step away. Everyone needs hobbies, interests, and activities away from work — especially business owners. Oregon farmer Kathy Hadley helps sponsor a slow-pitch softball team she also plays on to keep her stress in check. She admits it irritates her dad and husband when she has to leave for softball, but getting out on the ball field and playing keeps her stress in check. Stepping away from the stress you can’t control often provides the distance for a healthier approach.

How does stress management fit into your business? It depends on your priorities, but many of these ideas can be implemented to reduce cortisol. Just as animal comfort isn’t automatic, neither is stress management. It takes planning and management.

What is one step you can take in the coming months or the coming year to reduce your cortisol levels? Remember mental health — because it matters.

Michele Payn is an author, Certified Speaking Professional, and Holstein breeder in west central Indiana. She created Agriculture’s Growth Journal, filled with 50 stress management tips and tricks for farmers, veterinarians, and those who support them. Learn more at or follow @mpaynspeaker on social media.

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