Recruiting and retaining staff is a challenge that many dairy farmers throughout the UK and Ireland now struggle with, according to Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) Dairy Committee chairman, Mervyn Gordon.

Speaking at the last of three sustainable dairy webinars, hosted by the UFU and the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), he referenced a recent survey undertaken by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF).

Carried out at the beginning of this year, the work confirmed that 63% of farmers struggled to recruit in the last five years.

This is up from 51% in 2016 and 40% in 2014 when the RABDF last surveyed farmers using repeated polls about labour.

Moreover, almost a third of the farmers surveyed said they would consider leaving the industry due to a lack of dairy labour.

Recruiting and retaining labour

Dairy farming employers also pointed out that unsocial working hours and not enough people interested in dairy farming, are two of the main reasons for people not wanting to work on dairy farms, with 28% reporting staff leaving due to unsociable working hours.

This is despite 77% of employers saying they had made changes on their farm to make the workplace more attractive.

Changes included creating dedicated staff facilities; offering more time off and not working weekends; attractive house packages and pensions.

Mervyn Gordon addressed all of these issues during his presentation to the webinar: “To have a sustainable dairy industry, we need every link in the chain to be making a meaningful profit.

“In other words, everyone can invest in the business. In turn, this makes the farm a more welcoming environment within which to facilitate the recruitment and retention of staff.

“A 2017 survey indicated that only 5% of UK citizens would consider working on a dairy farm.

“Dairy farming businesses are already working more creatively to recruit the staff they need. But the authorities must realise that critical issues, such as effective rural transport schemes and the availability of value-for-money accommodation in rural areas, are outside the control and direct influence of milk producers.”

Automation as an alternative?

Gordon went on to point out that investing in automation has been high on the agenda of many farming businesses over the last number of years.

“And yes automation has worked in many sectors. However within dairy, these new technologies cannot fully replace the flexibility, dexterity and judgement of the human workforce,” he explained.

Gordon believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has provided the dairy sector and the greater farming industry with many valuable lessons.

“One man can only do so much,” he stressed.

“There is also a requirement for the correct work/life balance to be achieved within every farming business.”

The last decade has seen the number of milk producers in Northern Ireland falling by more than 50%. Yet the number of dairy cows has remained the same.

Increasing scale of operation is now the real driver behind the drive to secure suitable labour on significant numbers of dairy farms across Northern Ireland.

Many of those taking part in the webinar’s questions and answers session, highlighted the need for producers to be guaranteed sustainable prices into the future in order to allow them secure the quality of staff that they need now and into the future.