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Safety is personal at Table Rock Farm

T-shirts, posters and contests help drive the importance of safety on the farm.

The weather has gotten warmer, and fieldwork is in full swing across the Northeast, Ohio and Michigan. And with so many implements hitting the fields at this time of year, farm safety tends to focus on the rules of the road.

At Table Rock Farm in Castile, N.Y., safety is a year-round priority, and Annette Anderson, the farm’s safety officer, is leading the charge.

"I think people learn better when they’re doing a hands-on activity instead of us just talking," Anderson says. Same goes for learning something about safety. Using posters, contests and weekly “safety minute” talks, Anderson tries to instill safety concepts into the farm’s 35 full- and part-time employees.

The farm’s motto, “Think safe, work safe, home safe,” is emblazoned on T-shirts and hats that she’s made. "If I catch somebody doing something above and beyond what they normally should be doing, I give them a T-shirt or a hat,” she says.

Anderson was recently recognized for her work by the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America for her “innovative hands-on safety and health training programs.” ASHCA, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that was established in 2007, is a coalition of agricultural business leaders, producer associations, risk managers and others joining together with safety associations, federal and state agencies, educational institutions, and safety professionals.

Over the years, she’s tried to figure out ways of communicating safety in a way that’s simple, informative and, at times, fun. For example, she does a monthly trivia contest on farm safety. In March, the trivia question pertained to eye wash stations — the reasons for using them and how they’re used on a farm. She then followed up with the various farm crews on eye safety tips and tools they can use to protect their eyes.

Another month, Anderson focused on hearing safety and tools workers can use to protect their ears when it gets too loud because, let’s face it, dairy farms can be loud places.

She’s also brought in others to talk farm safety. One time, she had a retired agricultural teacher from a local school talk about worker safety and the importance of safety glasses. The retired teacher brought a mannequin with safety glasses and demonstrated how a $1 pair of safety glasses protected the mannequin’s eyes from a flying nail.

Another time, she had someone come in with a smartphone and, using an app, measure the decibel level of the milk parlor alarm, which indicates that the wash cycle is over. The app read 120 decibels, a level that can cause immediate damage to the ear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, noise above 70 decibels over a prolonged period can damage your hearing, according to the CDC.

“So part of my thinking is to make people subtly aware of the importance of their body parts,” she says.

Personal touch

Safety is not only part of keeping the farm operating, but it’s also personal.

The T-shirts that Anderson makes and hands out to the employees have disclaimers on them for UV safety. On a farm with 1,150 cows, 1,000 heifers and more than 1,800 acres of cropland, protecting your skin might not be a top priority for everyone, but it’s personal for Anderson and Meghan Hauser, the farm’s owner and fourth generation of her family to run the operation.

Hauser has had precancerous spots on her skin removed, and her father, Willard DeGolyer, died of pancreatic cancer last year.

Anderson is a thyroid cancer survivor.  

"It's not just what they're doing here; it's when they go home," Hauser says. "They have a life at home, too, so just thinking about how they're protected now and protected when they're home in the future. It's important stuff."

She’s also gotten involved in safety issues by way of the weekly safety minute with the farm’s shop crew.

Each week, someone on the crew is assigned a safety topic to talk about. If they see something on the farm that needs worked on or they notice something out of line, they bring it up during the brief meeting.

“And it’s a great thing because it inspires conversation,” Hauser says. “So my topic I did a couple of weeks ago was heart health. So, signs of a heart attack, signs of a stroke. And from that, it leads to a discussion about the AED system we have, or three or four more other things, so … it turns into a safety 10 minutes, which is OK. It’s been a nice thing for me to hear people during their annual review say, ‘You know, the safety minute has made me safer. I think it’s a great thing.’”

With such a large operation, Hauser says it’s crucial for her employees to buy into safety. It’s something she prioritizes during interviews with new employees where she asks applicants whether they’ve ever dealt with an emergency and how they handled the situation.

“We know there’s emergencies, but we need to be able to say to each other, don’t do that, watch for that cow," she says. "Things like that to be able to build that system of safety."

Safety is also an important topic off the farm for Anderson. She works with local 4-H’ers and junior firefighters in her community on various safety topics, including safe use of farm tools and how to safely work around fire and the equipment needed to do the job safely.

With the junior firefighters, she exposes them to different scenarios firemen would have to respond to. She teaches her juniors how to properly use face shields, fire extinguishers and thermal imaging camera. She’s even organized mock accidents to show the juniors how unsafe it is to change a tire with your leg underneath the car, especially if the jack slips.

"I think it's great that Annette's been recognized for this because she puts in a lot of work into this on top of her other duties," Hauser says.

Evolving operation

The farm’s 1,150 cows are milked three times a day in a double-20 herringbone parlor. Milk is shipped to a local Great Lakes Cheese plant.

The herd’s rolling herd average is about 29,000 pounds, Hauser says. The cows’ diet has ranged from 53% to 56% forages, depending on the year. The past couple of years, they’ve purchased standing hay and corn from a neighbor who’s retired from farming but works part time for Table Rock. 

Triticale, planted as a cover crop, is fed to the dry cows and heifers.

The animals are kept in freestall barns complete with fans and automatic sprinkler systems. The farm’s manure lagoon is covered, and the solids are separated from the liquids for bedding. Some solids are sold to other area farms, providing a secondary income source.

“That's been a game changer for us,” Hauser says. “Our somatic cell count this last month was 80,000. We have a fantastic crew that's doing that, but also having the solids in place are so much better than the sawdust we were using before. We're able to also not bring in the inputs of sawdust into the farm. We try to keep our farm in nutrient balance. We do an annual study on that, so one less input coming in is a real positive thing.”

The farm’s always had herd numbers in the hundreds, but Hauser says the farm really started to expand in the 1980s. More recently, a new barn for the dry cows was built, allowing the farm to house more milkers in a lower freestall barn.

A long-term project, she says, is improving cow lameness. Her goal is to have 95% of the cows scoring either 1 or 2 on the Zinpro locomotion scoring chart — a 1 to 5 scoring chart with 1 indicating normal movement, 2 indicating mild lameness and higher scores indicating more severe lameness. A recent audit showed 94.9% of the cows scoring 1 or 2.

And while the cows are the farm’s moneymakers, having the right people around is the most important part of the operation, Hauser says, one more reason to keep them safe and to promote a solid safety culture.

“One of the most exciting things for me is to see people grow, having people come in when they’re 18 or 19 years old and grow into a successful role, and then be excited about dairying,” she says.

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