AgrAbility partnerships keep disabled farmers working

Gloria Hafemeister

MADISON -  Of the more than 400 farmers that AgrAbility of Wisconsin serves each year, more than half are dairy farmers, and the majority of them are milking in stanchion or tie-stall barns.

David Travis milks cows at his Sharon dairy despite his severe arthritis, and back and foot problems. AgrAbility of Wisconsin is an organization devoted to providing ideas and adaptive equipment to farmers with farm injuries or other disabilities.

Last year DeLaval and AgrAbility of Wisconsin joined forces in coming up with ways to make milking chores easier for these dairy farmers who have problems with repeated kneeling and lifting. By using DeLaval’s track system and automatic take-offs the number of times a dairy farmer kneels to put on or take off milkers can be cut in half and the amount of lifting is minimal.

DeLaval is offering big discounts to clients of AgrAbility of Wisconsin in order to make the system more accessible for those with injuries or disabilities.

A motorized feed cart with a standing platform allows Adam Faust to feed the cows in a timely fashion with reduced the strain on his body, which he would have if he continued pushing a cart through the barn.

“In many cases, our farmers face obstacles in securing the funds for the technology we recommend, but this discount and the relationship with DeLaval will be extremely valuable in seeing those solutions through,” says Dr. Richard Straub, AgrAbility of Wisconsin co-director.

One former client of AgrAbility is Chilton dairy farmer Adam Faust who says he would not be able to continue to run his registered Holstein dairy farm without this adaptive technology.

“It reduces the need to lift and carry the automatic take-off units over the gutter and between cows,” he says. “Without it and the other technology that the counselors from AgrAbility have recommended over the years I would not be able to continue on the farm.”

Faust has worked on his family’s farm all his life and purchased the farm from his parents. He owns 93 acres and rents just over 400 acres, and milks 60 cows in a stall barn. Besides selling milk he also markets the genetics from his herd.

Faust was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that literally means “split spine” and results in a baby being born with an open spinal column and exposed spinal tissues.

Despite this issue he considers himself lucky because he is not wheelchair bound. He has always been challenged, however, with squatting under cows, bending at the waist, climbing and maintaining his balance. After years of finding his own solutions he reached out to AgrAbility and the counselors came out to the farm to come up with ways to make the physical labor on the farm easier for him.

Things were better, but in 2013 he had a farm accident that nearly claimed his life.  An infection from the injury led to the need to eventually amputate his leg.

Again, he surprised doctors with his quick recovery and adjustment to the prosthesis that allowed him to get around on his own. Again he called AgrAbility and, among other things, the counselors came up with the idea of the automatic take offs and track system that lessened the bending and lifting required in milking cows.

Chilton dairy farmer Adam Faust uses a DeLaval track and milking unit system in his barn to reduce the strain on his body from carrying the units throughout the barn. Now he can slide the units on the track and use the overhead track to stay balanced when crossing the alley to get to the cows.

Since that time, DeLaval worked with AgrAbility to help more farmers obtain this technology at an affordable price.

Since Faust has been able to continue operating his farm because of this assistance he has become a spokesperson for the AgrAbility program. He has helped to encourage other farmers with disabilities and has opened his farm to potential clients to show them the various types of assistive technology he has in place.

AgrAbility’s is a partnership between Easter Seals FARM program and the University of Wisconsin. Biological engineering students are currently working on several projects that could result in equipment that would make it easier for farmers with disabilities to continue farming.

One project is to come up with ways to make milk tank and dairy monitoring equipment more accessible to those with disabilities. Faust has invited students working on the project to come to his farm to get a better idea of the milk-house equipment.

He notes, “Not all of the students in the project are from farms and it was a real eye-opener for them to see the technology that is in a milkhouse.”

The students are challenged to create a way to make everything accessible without climbing.  Older bulk tanks, for instance, were smaller and equipment was at a reachable height but newer systems are higher and in some cases require climbing.

The new designs must still meet all cleanliness and milk quality standards. Those who evaluate the designs will also look at whether the system can be modified without the need to remodel or add on to a milk house or parlor to utilize it.

In another project, engineering students are asked to come up with easier ways to get into a skid-steer loader. The results of that project would also benefit farmers with disabilities.

Brian Luck, AgrAbility of Wisconsin director with the University of Wisconsin Extension says he welcomes suggestions for any possible modifications to equipment that would make it easier for farmers, particularly those with some sort of disability.

AgrAbility of Wisconsin maintains a list of resources for all types of farming that is available on line so that farmers with disabilities are able to access equipment that will help them with tasks.  Over 6000 items have already been listed and the list is growing as the staff of AgrAbility locates more.

Jim Zell, town of Mosinee, demonstrates his three-step tractor  made by Dave Welock, Marathon during AgrAbility Field Day at Zell's farm in 1999.  Zell suffered a back injury in 1988 and later made changes to his tractors and other equipment.