Labour is an ongoing issue on many dairy farms, with many farms struggling to attract and retain staff on farms.

Speaking at the Teagasc National Dairy Conference, John Whelan outlined how he manages labour on his three dairy farms.

Along with operating three dairy farms in the Model county, Whelan is also a world champion for ploughing.

Irish ploughing team retains world champion titles
Supreme World Ploughing Contest champions, Eamonn Tracey and John Whelan Source: National Ploughing Championships

Having now won the title on four occasions, his most recent victory came in October of 2023, when the Ballygarvan man competing in the ‘reversible class’ remained the title.

Farm development

John entered a partnership with his uncle Tom Murphy in mid 1990’s. At this stage, the farm consisted of 18ha, and 30 cows were being milked.

Over the years, Whelan and his uncle tried to build the business by obtaining quota, while there was also beet and barley being grown on the farm.

Additional land was added to the farm through leasing and purchasing, with all of this land adjacent to the milk platform.

John Whelan speaking at the Teagasc National Dairy Conference

Herd size had increased to around 80 cows, just prior to quota being removed – with the herd growing to 297 cows in 2020, and then dropping back to 269 in 2022.

A total of 77ha is on the milking platform, with 50ha owned and the rest leased.

Currently, there is around 278 cows and 100 replacements being kept on the home farm. The herd has an average economic breeding index (EBI) of €183 – with 82% calved in six weeks.

The farm grew 15t/ha of grass, with the milking platform stock at 3.5 livestock units (LU)/ha, and a whole farm stocking rate of 2.6LU/ha.

526kg of milk solids/cow were sold from the farm, with around 1.2t of concentrates fed/cow.

Growing business

In 2018 the opportunity came up to take on a second farm. Whelan noted that 2018 was the year of the snow in spring and drought during the summer: “It was a fair baptism of fire, I can tell you.”

A farm manager was in place, but he was leaving to return to his own farm and Whelan need to identify someone to take on the role.

Michael Bryson was working on the home farm for around eight months, when John identified him as someone who could run the farm.


By 2019 Michael was running the farm, with significant investment made on the water system, cubicles and a drafting system.

Whelan added that taking on the second farm exposed a lot of weakness in the home farm, the weakness exposed included staff, stock, finance and in himself.

“We had to go back and look at everything and fix it, we had to relook at all those things and made it right,” he said.

There are now around 220 cows being milked on the farm.

In 2021, a third farm was added; with this farm having it own farm manager Greg. Between the two farms, there is three full-time labour units, with Bryson moving between the two farm as required.


This dairy enterprise now consists of 700 cows, 400 replacements and around 1000ac, with managing labour a key part of the operation.

The three farms now have five full-time employees, including John, and four part-time to cover weekend milking and time off. Every farm has a calendar, which outlines day-off and planned leave.

“We would be very aware of staff that would be due an extra few hours holidays and they might be given a extra day-off.

“Annual leave is handled by my accountant, he processes all the payslips and he tells me who is due how much, and if I need to give people more time off,” he said.

Working with people

According to John, the most important thing when working with people, is to keep things simple. At the National Dairy Conference, he outline the use of bands on freshly-calved cows.

Band system used by John on his farms
Image: Teagasc

The bands are very visual, and the chart is kept in the milking parlour – making it easy for anyone milking to understand what needs to be done.

He said this means that you don’t have to look at a whiteboard or records, you just have to look at the cows as they walk into the parlour.

John believes that technology is a key-part to the operation, and that WhatsApp groups are effective for farm communication.

He explained that if someone milking gives a cow a mastitis tube, they inform WhatsApp group – so everyone on the farm knows a tube has been given to that cow.

John also point out that the WhatsApp is linked to the person processing the Bord Bia inspections for the farms, which means they can record medicine usage as they are being given to cows. Three farms means that there is a Bord Bia inspection every six months.

Calves are registered using phones on the farm, which also makes the system much simpler.

Managing labour

John said that it is important to be aware of your staff if they are struggling; if someone is particularly tired, he gives them a few extra hours off in the morning.

When things go wrong, John believes that is important to ask yourself: “What part did I play, and how could I change it to make it easier for people working for you?”

John said that he pays his family members to milk cows, or complete other work on the farm, as it “gives them great apprecation for the value of money”.

Key messages

The key points from John speaking on dealing with labour on his farms, was to focus on having realistic expectation of staff.

Having good communication with staff, and ensuring that they have regular time-off, along with scheduled leave, is important.

Using technology to make your life, and the life of your staff easier, is a big help. Keep things simple on the farm, and have processes clearly outlined.