Is your dairy farm labour efficient?

Date published: 26 October 2022

Putting it simply, ‘labour’ is about work and who does that work. The key aim for any dairy business is maximising efficiency and profitability on a sustainable basis for the future. Dairy farmers work long and hard, day in and day out. However, they need to ensure the production model is socially sustainable and it enables an appropriate work-life balance. As dairy farms continue to grow their milk production here in Northern Ireland, important issues are being raised around labour efficiency and the provision of labour to cope with this expansion. Farm labour is one of the biggest costs in the production system and increasingly it is becoming one of the key challenges facing dairy farmers today.

Simple developments such as ease of calf transport can make a big difference to labour demand.

As part of a College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) initiative, two business development groups (BDG’s) in the Newtownards area are involved in a dairy labour survey. The survey is about establishing baseline information for dairy farmers in the groups and providing answers to several key questions that must be asked by individual farmers.

  1. How efficient is my dairy farm in terms of labour input?
  2. What areas or tasks within my farm business need to improve in relation to labour efficiency?
  3. How can I make work practises on the farm more efficient?
  4. Can I prioritise capital investment to improve labour efficiency?
  5. And how can I attract highly skilled people to commit to the farm?

Labour challenges facing your farm this winter

Weekly hours worked- for many of the participants in the survey paid staff have become an essential feature of the farm business, particularly part time staff. As farms have developed a significant proportion of the farmers have tried to do all the extra work, working up to 81 hours a week on average. This practice is difficult to maintain in the long term and can lead to poor efficiency or burn out of family or paid labour.

Compact calving- with all the benefits a compact calving profile can bring to a business including improved fertility performance, simplified heifer rearing enterprise and improved herd health protocols, one of the challenges it presents is a seasonal and concentrated labour demand profile. Significant planning and preparation are required to manage this increased labour demand during calving and the associated calve rearing tasks.

One of the benefits of increased scale should be the ability of the farm owner to control their own hours worked and like any business owner, a dairy farmer wants to maximise the value of paid labour and improve staff retention, it is therefore vital that best practice labour efficiency measures are adopted.

What is labour efficiency?

While total hours worked on farm by family members and paid employees is important, an efficiency metric is required. Hours worked per cow per year takes the total annual hours and divides it by the herd size. Initial data suggests larger herds tend to work less time per individual cow, gaining efficiencies with time dilution on some tasks. For example, herding cows will still take 20 minutes whether there are 100 or 150 cows milking. That said, variation in hours worked per cow is massive across both BDG’s ranging from 22.5hours/cow/year to a significant 55.7hours/cow/year. This can be down to several reasons including milking routine, facilities and work organisation. While scale may improve work efficiency per cow, the gains made will usually not be enough to offset change in total workload. In simple terms, keeping more stock will result in more work (hours) needed on the farm overall.

The chart highlights initial data from the survey. While milking (which includes herding, cubicle preparation and parlour wash down) takes up most of the time, feeding cows is also a significant labour demand at 16%. This data is for winter and summer months 2022 for all farms in the survey.

 The table below illustrates key efficiency ranges and total labour input for the group.

Labour survey 2022


Group range

Herd size (cows)

86 - 555

Total annual farm labour
input (hours)

4,200 - 13,040

Efficiency metric
Hours /cow/year

22.5 -55.7


Key factors to improve labour efficient this winter on your dairy farm

Outsourcing work. One of the key features of efficient dairy farms is the farmers ability to organise and delegate tasks. Breeding is a key area on dairy farms especially if breeding is condensed into a limited number of weeks. Outsourcing this work has brought many benefits from reducing farm labour demand for heat detection and breeding to improve fertility performance for the overall herd.

Good communication. The ability to communicate between all people working on the farm is critical when it comes to achieving an efficient dairy farm. When it comes to making most efficient use of the labour on a dairy farm, good organisational practice and communication techniques like white boards, WhatsApp or farm maps are required to ensure that the overall enterprise runs as efficiently as possible. Building good practise and standard operating procedures (SOP) is critical for an efficient dairy farm.

Capital investment to improve labour efficiency. The milking process alone can account for 25% to 50% of the hours worked on a farm depending on facilities. This can change dramatically when herds expand or move to three times milking per day. Changing the milking facilities on your farm may be a ‘once in a generation’ decision. Selecting the most cost effective, labour effective and simply operated system is critical. The investment must meet labour saving criteria – will the parlour allocate concentrate automatically? Is cow-flow at parlour entry and exit optimised?

Capitalise on technology development. From survey data heat detection equipment appears to provide significant labour savings. This equipment reduces labour demand for heat detection while also offering early detection of animal health issues. Fully utilised, well designed and managed correctly these investments can provide significant labour savings for your business.

Building team morale. Whilst pay is an important element to attracting and retaining good, reliable staff, some farmers surveyed noted that it was not always the most important aspect of the job. Developing a sense that employees were trusted in the job and had opinions valued is important as well as having good communication and flexible and fair working hours. Building a two-way communication environment between employee and manager will ultimately improve productivity on your farm.


Dairy farming has changed over the past 10 years, there are now fewer dairy farms, resulting in the remaining farms getting bigger and therefore more dependent on hired labour. While improving labour efficiency with tweaks to the production model or investment into labour saving technology coupled with outsourcing and utilising contractors will fill the labour demand gap to a certain extent. There may well still be a labour shortage on your farm, working long hours as an owner operator is not the solution and in the long run is counterproductive. Take time now to assess your business in terms of labour demand. How many hours per week are you working? Have you taken a break from the farm in the past 6 months? How efficient is your farm in terms of hours worked per cow per year? Any future expansion must be carefully planned with labour demand taking a central position in those plans.

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