AgrAbility changes farmers' lives
Chilton — Like many young guys growing up on a farm, all Adam Faust ever wanted to do is farm.
Growing up on his parents’ farm near Chilton, he helped with chores and milked cows despite physical challenges he faced since he was born. Eventually, he bought that farm and as sole proprietor is milking 60 cows and marketing his registered Holstein genetics.
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, introducing a new set of obstacles for anyone interested in dairy farming.
Faust always considered himself lucky because most people with this condition are in wheelchairs and are unable to walk, let alone perform daily farm chores. His challenge was primarily with balance and mobility.
Because his legs are weak, squatting under cows was hard, so he bent at the waist. That created problems for his back. He couldn’t climb silos or ladders, but his dad handled those tasks.
After years of finding his own solutions, Faust decided to reach out to AgrAbility, a USDA grant program focusing on outreach, education, networking and direct assistance to Wisconsin farmers, to see if they could offer any help.
They came out and found numerous ways they could help, including adding steps to his older tractors to make it easier to get in; putting up bins to eliminate lifting and handling feed bags; and providing an electric feed cart to ease the pain of pushing wheelbarrows to feed. He also got a gator to make it easier to move around the farm.
“I never thought I’d need a Gator, but I guess I didn’t realize how much running around a person does on the farm,” he said. “Now I don’t know what I’d do without it.
“Because our feed alley is narrow in the barn, they found a cart that was narrow enough and maneuverable enough that now I can feed the cows without having to bend."
Faust eventually bought the farm from his parents and things went well, but then in 2013, he faced an even bigger challenge — a farm accident that nearly claimed his life.
He said it started out as just a minor thing. A gate tipped over and cut his foot. It didn’t seem like a serious injury, but in the weeks that followed, he got very sick, and after a trip to the emergency room, found out his body was filled with an infection that began with the cut on his foot. Doctors believe the infection or the trauma of it likely damaged his pancreas, and he ended up with diabetes.
His condition got so serious so fast that doctors didn’t believe he would survive. They amputated his leg, and he surprised all of the medical staff by recovering quickly and adjusting quickly to the prosthesis that now allows him to get around on his own.
Again, he called AgrAbility for help.
His herd had grown to 140 registered Holsteins, and he was milking 60 cows in a stall barn. The Easter Seals FARM team came out to evaluate the farm again and came up with the idea of a milk track system that reduces the need to lift and carry the automatic take-off units over the gutter and between cows.
“It works very well," Faust said. "I also reach up and use the track as a hand-rail to help with my balance. The system has baskets that ride on the cart to carry all my milking supplies.”
They also set him up with a bedding cart to distribute the special mix of materials that he places in the deep bedded stalls. He described it as alternative animal bedding: a mix of recycled paper material and a fine lime.
The cart Faust uses to distribute the bedding was specially designed for his farm by a company from Canada. He met representatives from the company and described his challenges with getting bedding into the head-to-head stalls in his barn. The existing carts were too wide to use in his barn, but after the show ended, the company representatives came out to his farm to do some measuring. A month after returning to Canada, they came to him with drawings and a proposal to build a special 30-inch unit with a platform on the back for him to ride.
“It works very well now," he said. "I fill the cart seven times and distribute it and can get the bedding done in about an hour.”
Feeding heifers was also a challenge for him. The FARM specialists came up with the idea of self-locking headlocks on a portable feed wagon.
“That really improved my ability to handle the heifer management in a safer way and reduced the time I need to walk on uneven terrain,” he said. “The only thing is I must lock the wheels on the wagon because the heifers soon figured out that if they organize themselves, they can walk away with the wagon.”
Faust said he thought about other management systems, including a freestall barn and parlor or robots, but not only would those choices have been more expensive, he would have also needed to move cows more often than he does with his current system.
Faust is thankful for the assistance he received through AgrAbility, not just once but twice.
He is also thankful for the Department of Vocational Development assistance to help pay for some of the special equipment that made it possible for him to keep farming. DVR provides assistance to individuals with disabilities who face a substantial barrier to employment. Faust pointed out that participating farmers invest in their special needs as well.
Agrability, Easter Seals and the UW-Extension, as partners, provide the guidance and evaluations but not the funding for modifications or equipment. Farmers seeking funding for assistive technology or equipment to address disabilities in order to remain employed may apply for other resources for an assessment to identify those needs. One such option is the DVR.
Since buying the farm from his parents, Faust continues to operate his 93 owned acres and just over 400 acres of rented land. He has moved from a grade herd to a registered Holstein herd that allows him to market embryos and genetics.
While he is able to do most tasks on his own, he gets help from friends when it comes to any climbing. He still stores feed in upright silos and knows it would not be safe to climb.
Faust is grateful for the opportunity to stay farming, despite his many challenges.
Since the program began 25 years ago, 2,699 Wisconsin farmers like Faust have received help in one way or another, making it possible for them to continue in business.