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CAFRE

The challenge of getting and keeping workers on dairy farms

March 9, 2022

The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in partnership with the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) and Dairy Council Northern Ireland hosted a webinar at the end of last year on attracting, training and retaining staff to address the challenge dairy farmers are having in getting workers. Mervyn Gordon, chair of the UFU Dairy Committee, opened the event by quoting results of a survey which found that 63% of dairy farmers in GB were having problems recruiting workers and another survey which found that only 5% of people surveyed said they were prepared to work on a dairy farm. Lack of skilled labour has encouraged many dairy farms to consider robotic milking. Mr Gordon also called for the industry to promote dairy farming as a good career. 

Dr Marion Beecher, from Teagasc, spoke on improving labour efficiency on dairy farms. She noted various things that potential farm workers were looking for in a job, such as set start and finish times, regular hours, fair wage, responsibility, good facilities and rewards or bonuses. Dr Beecher went on to highlight features of a labour efficient dairy farm including a simple system, well organized, well-designed yard, block calving, healthy cows, modern milking facilities and generating good communication with workers. 

Results from Teagasc research work also highlighted the difference in labour efficiency between dairy farms with the top 50% operating at 14-21 hours per cow per year compared to the bottom 50% having up to twice that. 

Joe Delves, a dairy farmer from Sussex, who completed Nuffield Farming scholar entitled “Why some farmers succeed in dairy farming and others do not” spoke on his experiences in managing staff. Joe took over the family farm in 2005 which had 150 cows and family labour. Today Mr Delves is now managing four farms with a total of 940 cows, a small cheese business and 12 staff. In terms of labour efficiency on his farms, he initially calculated labour efficiency at 30 hours per cow per year but with some changes he has now nearly halved that. Overall he runs his farms at 100 cows per full time equivalent labour unit. His advice to farmers in managing staff is to be ‘slow to hire and slow to fire’, put new workers on a 3 month probationary period with agreed simple targets, train new staff, set standards for work, offer bonuses and rewards based on performance targets. Mr Delves advises to only use WhatsApp or texting for communications and not accusations, and always speak directly to staff about concerns.

It is important for dairy farm owners to consider that staff do not own the business and therefore will not, in many cases, have the same commitment to the job as the owner would have. It is not sensible to expect workers to do the same hours as the owner would do and to try to ensure regular working hours with flexibility if possible. Despite it being not easy to get workers for a dairy farm, applying patience, training and efficiency will go a long way to keeping them.

To view this webinar, visit here.