Dealing with labour issues on Northern Ireland dairy farms

Date published: 19 December 2023

A recent dairy conference, organised by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), in Ballynahinch opened the debate about farm labour and workload management on Northern Ireland dairy farms.

Guests on the day heard from four key speakers on the topics of labour efficiency, the psychology of people and the importance of looking after yourself as the farmer. After the event one dairy farmer described his experience of the event in a fitting manner - “It’s not about reinventing the wheel – it’s simply learning how to grease it!”

The conference was opened by Chris Osborne UFU and the presentations began with an overview of a recent CAFRE Labour Study where CAFRE Dairy Adviser Anna Truesdale outlined some of the key findings. The average dairy farmer in the study was working 66 hours per week, and Anna explained how this average figure masked the range of working hours. She commented: “There were farmers in the survey regularly working upwards of 80 hours per week”. In terms of sustainability and attracting the next generation into the industry, Anna highlighted how the average weekly hours across the rest of the UK labour market was just over 36 hours and: “If dairy farming is to be an attractive and competitive industry within the labour market, we need to make our farms somewhere where people want to work.”

At the conference, over 80% of attendees thought they did ‘too much work on the farm’ and a number of those in attendance hadn’t had a single day away from the farm in the last three months. With that in mind, Anna urged participants to review their own farms and identify the most time-hungry tasks. She presented a few of the ideas that other farmers had suggested as ways in which they had ‘saved time’ within their own businesses. These included use of heat and health monitors, cubicle bedders and milk taxi’s as well as reviewing the efficiency of infrastructure, for example adding laneways within the overall layout of the farm. She suggested farmers take ‘a cows-eye view’ in terms of analysing cow flow through sheds as well as proposing a ‘quick-fix’ – that all gates on the farm should swing and as many jobs as possible should be made able to be done by just one person.

The Big Picture

Following on from the CAFRE presention, Nollaig Heffernan of Heffernan Consultancy Ltd. delivered a detailed discussion on motivating and managing people. She explained how important it was for those in the room to have a ‘why’ – that is the ‘why’ behind their business and business model and urged farmers not to diminish the impact that investment in people can have on their bottom line.

She explained how the farmers attitude to people, such as delivery drivers, salespeople, and vets, as well as employees, is a reflection on their business and to be a ‘people’s choice’ employer, they must remain fair, gracious and kind to all. She urged those in attendance to remember that growing up on a family farm, most of them had 16 years work experience before the age of 18, and that not everyone who will come on to their farm will have had the same experience or be invested in the business to the same extent that they are.

Nollaig continued outlining how investment in safe working practices, creating standard operating procedures as well as having tidy, organised yards will all help to create a more attractive working environment for current and potential employees.

Theory into Practice

Evolution Farming Ltd.’s co-founder Tom Rawson was next on the panel. He summarised the growth of Evolution Farming from a 50-cow tenancy in West Yorkshire to managing 3800 cows over 9 different units around England. Tom explained how at busy times the business could be employing upwards on 80 full and part-time staff and he was able to demonstrate to attendees how some of the ideas that Nollaig had previously touched on can be put into practice.

“A simple, forage-based system, with fast, efficient parlours and good grazing infrastructure,” form the basis of most of the farms that he oversees. “The less arduous a task, the better!” he explained, outlining how half of the farms in the business operate a spring-calving block and the other half in autumn.

Motivation for work is high and Evolution Farming Ltd. offers employees a clear line of progression, from herdsperson up to 2IC (2nd in command), unit manager and eventually director. The firm even offers bonuses to employees who ‘invite a friend’, provided they stay in the business for a minimum of 6 months.

Tom explained how social media, branded workwear and the positive experiences of staff have all played a part in creating a business that attracts labour: “We even have a 5-a-side football team,” Rawson said.

Invest in Yourself

Dr Rebecca Orr closed with a passionate delivery on the impacts of sleep, stress, and sustenance on a dairy farmer’s body. Dr Orr suggested that stress wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and that ‘a little stress is what gets us up in the morning’ but highlighted the importance of being able to cope with that stress and being able to ground yourself again after a stressful situation.

She outlined how, akin to cattle, dairy farmers are impacted by stress and poor nutrition, reporting that fertility, immunity, and memory are all heavily affected by a lack of sleep, continuous excessive stress, and a poor diet.

She urged farmers to ‘know their numbers’ – like how they benchmark their businesses, they need to benchmark their own statistics. Dr Orr pointed to a recent study which found that male farmers are 74% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke and how, throughout the UK and Ireland, farmers featured highly when ranking socio-economic groups in terms of mortality.

Dr Orr finished by reminding farmers that, just like checking the pressure on their tractor tyres, they need to check their blood pressure regularly and make changes as necessary. She reminded them to set long-term goals with their health, just like in their businesses, and take active steps to reach those goals.

Ian Stevenson, DCNI, summed up the key messages from the conference and thanked the speakers for their presentations.

Notes to editors: 

  1. Photo caption: Speakers and Chairmen at the recent conference ‘Building Sustainability: A Farm Labour Perspective’, L to R, Chris Osbourne (UFU), Ian Stevenson (Dairy Council NI), Dr Rebecca Orr, Nollaig Heffernan (Heffernan Consultancy Ltd.), Anna Truesdale (CAFRE), Tom Rawson (Evolution Farming Ltd.) and Conail Keown (CAFRE).
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