‘Volatile milk prices’ leaving dairy farmers ‘little choice but to expand’

A report has found that “volatile milk prices and increasing costs” have left some Irish dairy farmers feeling as though they have “little choice but to expand”.

These are some of the preliminary findings of the ‘Cows eat grass, don’t they?’ research initiative, led by Dr. Orla Shortall, a social researcher at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland.

The project focused on farmer, stakeholder and public views about the future of the dairy sectors in the UK and Ireland.

According to Dr. Shortall, the research showed that Irish farmers feel like public debate is “turning against them” in relation to the environment and animal welfare.

The study also found that this can create stress for farmers and a feeling of a lack of control over the public narrative about the work they do.

Dr. Shortall said:

Ideally, farmers would like more stable milk prices and more control over the public and industry conditions they work within.

“Expansion had differing impacts on work-life balance. It was beneficial for some; not for others.

“When they expanded some people were able to hire more labour and reduce their own workload. Others worked extra hours to manage the increase in cow numbers.”

Being a ‘good farmer’

Dr. Shortall continued:

“Farmers wanted work-life balance to be valued better in the industry and by other farmers. Working hard was traditionally seen as part of being a ‘good farmer’.

“However, farmers have called for more emphasis within the industry on the importance of a good work-life balance which would help restore some feeling of control and align the direction of the industry with what farmers want for their own working life.”

Dr. Shortall also pointed out that findings showed “creating shared values around working shorter hours is useful”.

However, at the same time this doesn’t solve structural problems around the long-term trend of rising costs and volatile milk prices.

“This had led to a perception of increased administrative burden which puts time and financial pressure on farmers.

“Having a good work-life balance was seen as a choice farmers make and involves skills in time management that they can develop, but there are also factors outside farmers’ control that can make a good work-life balance difficult to achieve,” Shortall concluded.