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Equipment Hub: Equipment that saves

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairyman Published on 07 February 2019

We all know how expensive equipment is today. I often think back to the economic boom that was the 1970s in the dairy industry. One of my professors at Virginia Tech, the late William Etgen, called the ’70s the “Golden Age of Dairying,” and part of the outward signs of the truth of that term was the expansion of our equipment line on my home farm.

The downside of all that new paint within just a few years was: All those tractors, implements and cattle handling equipment started to wear out within an equally compressed time frame as well. Replacing all that equipment with a tightened budget was difficult 20 years ago and, with today’s strained budgets, there is an understandable drive to “make do.”

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One thing to think about when it comes to animal-handling equipment and facilities is how much they may save, as well as the up-front cost of purchase. Some of those savings may come in a way many of us simply do not think about: health care costs.

While new equipment does not qualify you for a break in insurance premiums, there are some real examples where newer, safer equipment is keeping an aging population of farmers farming. Several years ago, some of my extension colleagues wrote a cattle-handling equipment grant through our local feeder cattle association.

Using Tobacco Indemnification Commission funds, hundreds of operations received cost-sharing assistance to update or install items such as cattle chutes, fencing and other handling facility upgrades. The result was a new added value, backgrounded calf marketing effort that has returned over $5 million dollars to producers over our state graded sales.

We found not only were recipient farms working their cattle in a more efficient and effective fashion, they were working them more often and with less stress. All this made me wonder about how many injuries we may be preventing – not only to the cattle (which is very important, don’t get me wrong) but also to the owners and operators who were running calves through these facilities and equipment.

I pondered this for several years until a teacher colleague of my daughter approached me about working on a master’s degree program in partnership with the extension office. She and her husband have a beef operation in our county, so when I asked her about helping me with a safety survey and fact-finding mission on livestock handling, she was eager to assist.

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We searched for a similar survey instrument so we would not have to pilot and test an original work and found a good fit that looked at farm safety. Focusing on livestock production, we posed a series of questions to producers and gathered the data in face-to-face settings.

What we found was no surprise to us, nor will any of you be shocked either. When we asked producers if they or a family member had ever been injured as a result of working livestock, 100 percent responded they or a family member had indeed suffered an injury. While several species of livestock were mentioned as offenders, cattle were the overwhelming animals causing handling-related injuries.

It should be noted, given the make-up of our agricultural enterprises, cattle would have to be the source of the majority of injuries. Ninety-six percent of our farm product sales total are from the sale of cattle, and cattle outnumber people in our county by a margin of 2 to 1. If we could only get bovine suffrage passed, we could really be a political force.

While it might not be surprising all of the participants in our survey reported injuries, the extent of those injuries was an eye-opener. Nearly 70 percent of the participants were injured to the point of having to seek medical attention and, of those, over half were hospitalized.

Of those who were hospitalized, about one-third spent more than two nights in the hospital as a result of their cattle-handling mishap. So, to recap, of all the farmers responding to our survey, 10 percent of them had spent more than two days in the hospital. If any of you have had to spend any time in an emergency room or a hospital bed, you know all too well the price tag associated with that kind of injury treatment.

Five years ago, I took a spill off a ladder and broke my right shoulder and three vertebra in my back. I couldn’t reach anyone on my cellphone, so I drove myself to the hospital and literally crawled into the building, so I had no transportation bill. My visit to the emergency room alone was over $11,000. As a result of that fall, and the arthritis that set up, my left hip was totally replaced last February.

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Overall, the tally for my few seconds under the control of gravity is standing at just south of a quarter of a million dollars. I spent four hours in the emergency room and three days in the hospital recovering from surgery. Luckily, I had great insurance and received excellent care from my local hospital and physicians. Too many farmers wouldn’t be nearly as lucky.

When asked how the participants countered the effects of these livestock-handling injuries, every producer replied they had made investments in their facilities to make them safer. Improvements included squeeze chutes, alleyways, fencing, lighting, added gates and escape routes. When quizzed about how much they had spent to improve their facilities, the majority of the participants responded their improvements cost them an average of about $5,000.

Yes, equipment is expensive but when compared to your health and safety, the investment in our handling facilities saves more than we ever want to know.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

Andy Overbay
  • Andy Overbay

  • Extension Agent
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension
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