Heidi Straubhaar's body was telling her to quit feeding calves and helping with chores on the farm she and her husband Mike were operating but her mind and heart were telling her otherwise.
Painful hips were making it more and more difficult for her to do any of the routine chores that she had been doing since she and Mike took over his parents' farm, but without her help it would be tough to keep the farm going until their son would be ready to join the business.
"Our farm is in God's country but God loves hills," she says. "Walking up and down the steep hills was getting harder all the time. I have spinal degeneration and some days it's so painful that by the time I was done the only way I could walk was backward down the hill."
Her pain got progressively worse as the years wore on but she admits, "I wanted to be able to help another five years when our son would be in a position to join our business and take over some of the work."
Unaware that there were ways to make her job easier, she trekked through her daily tasks in pain. Then a friend who had worked for the family years ago told her about AgrAbility.
He had post-polio syndrome and the counselors from AgrAbility's partner, Easter Seals FARM program, assessed the farm and his tasks and modified equipment so he could continue to drive tractor and help on the farm.
The Straubhaars contacted AgrAbility and after the farm assessment they worked with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to modify equipment and provide equipment that would make farming tasks easier for her.
The family operates 450 acres of land, raising corn and alfalfa for their 225-cow dairy herd and the accompanying youngstock. They milk cows in a double 8 parlor that is attached to the freestall barn they built on a hill where the cows benefit from the cool summer breezes.
The hilly farmstead made it difficult for her to physically move around from the milking barn to the calf hutches, dry-cow barn and the farm home.
They use pasteurized discard milk to feed calves, but getting it from one location to another was difficult for her.
The biggest help was replacing their stationary pasteurizer with a portable unit. Now she uses a Power Milk Taxi to dispense milk and water without having to carry it. They put pail holders outside the wire around the hutch to eliminate the need to climb into or reach into the hutches with pails.
She usually has about 32 calves on milk or weaned on water at any given time and the new equipment took a lot of strain off her back and hips.
They also got an ATV that enables her to move up and down the uneven terrain on the farmstead, carrying milk, supplies and equipment. A blade in the front doubles as a snow plow that can get between the calf hutches and a feed pusher. She says, "Before this work was done by hand, which is hard on the back."
In the milking parlor they added an additional rubber mat to provide more cushion and bring the platform up a little higher, making it easier to attach units.
The system originally had plastic cups on the floor level where the units were attached to the cleaning system after the milking was complete. They replaced this with a wash drawer that is at waist level, eliminating bending to attach the units after milking.
Straubhaar comments, "By the time I got to the last one of the 16 units, I'd get down on the floor to connect it and I couldn't get back up again."
She also got a simple sturdy nursery wagon that she uses to move materials through the barn and eliminate carrying.
"I use it to carry milk pails, grain, and other things. I've even used it to carry a new-born calf born under less-than-ideal conditions that needs to be transported to the calf area," Straubhaar stated.
Even little jobs like bedding the calf hutches presented a challenge. Now they are gradually replacing calf hutches with a different style, one that has a door on top for tossing in bedding.
Straubhaar explains, "With these older ones I brought sawdust down to the hutch area with a skid steer bucket. Then I had to scoop it out of the bucket and toss it over the wire fence into the hutch. I can just drop it through the hinged-door opening in these newer ones."
Asking for help
She adds, "Without AgrAbility, I would never have been able to keep up with all my jobs on the farm. My husband and I are alone here and our goal was to keep the farm going another five years when our son, Nick, will be able to join us."
Since getting the assistance from AgrAbility she has become a real spokesperson for this organization. She stresses, "Farmers are a unique group of people. They don't want to admit when they have pain or go to doctors. They get so used to pain that they just keep going even when it is painful to perform the task."
She admits they are also a proud lot and are afraid to ask for help, even when they know help is available.
Straubhaar says, "In my case, some people might not understand why I needed to get help. If a farmer loses an arm or a leg people can see that but they can't see pain. Many people didn't know the pain I am in every day just doing routine things. It wears you down."
The Wisconsin Department of Vocational Rehabilitation has also done studies on costs and benefits of keeping farmers on the job by providing modifications or equipment that make the job physically easier.
In 2010, 100 successful rehabilitations cost a total of just under $3.9 million or an average of $38,744 per case. The benefits realized by keeping these 100 people in the workforce total $6.79 million.
What's even more impressive, says Dr. Dick Straub, Wisconsin AgrAbility director, is that these people are not dependent on public assistance or disability payments. They are working and contributing to their family's businesses and to society.
He adds, "By modifying equipment on the farm or providing equipment for these farmers we are also helping to prevent further injury or strain on the body.
AgrAbility, a partnership between UW-Cooperative Extension and Easter Seals, provides needs-based assistance to farmers using money provided by several grants.
USDA grants provide 30 percent of the funding, 50 percent comes from other agencies for service-based fees and the remaining 20 percent comes from other various grants.
Wisconsin is one of 27 states with an AgrAbility program, and there are approximately 400 current clients.
The program continues to track the progress of their clients through phone calls and follow-up visits. When a farmer is able to perform tasks safety, the case is closed.