What sets the most efficient dairy farmers apart?

Results of a Teagasc study, which analysed labour issues on 38 dairy farms – with herd sizes ranging from 60 to 600 cows – were presented at this week’s International Agricultural Workforce Conference.

Bernadette O’Brien, a research officer based in Moorepark, outlined the reasoning behind the work, which was conducted to measure levels of labour input and efficiency on a selected group of commercial dairy farms and to identify practices associated with increased efficiency.

Farmers involved in the study were allotted to one of three herd size categories. Farmers in ‘herd size category 1’ (HSC 1) had <150 cows, those in ‘herd size category 2’ (HSC 2) had between 150 and 249 cows and the final group – ‘herd size category 3’ (HSC 3) – had ≥250 cows.

Table source: Teagasc


O’Brien explained: “The average total labour input across the 38 farms was 4,512 hours and the labour efficiency was 24.1 hours per cow per year.

“For HSC 1, we had a labour input of 3,015 hours per year; that increased as the herd size increased to 4,500 hours (HSC 2) and the total labour input was roughly 6,000 hours at the higher category size (HSC 3).

“Associated with that, we can calculate the efficiency for the different groups in terms of hours per cow per year and we see that efficiency improves – and that’s represented by a decrease – as herd size increases.

“We see an improvement in the efficiency from 25.1 hours per cow (HSC 1) to 24.2 hours per cow (HSC 2) to 18.6 hours per cow (HSC 3).”

Labour input (hours) on-farm across herd size categories. Table source: Teagasc

Key tasks

As part of the project, the participating farmers were required to record the amount of time it took to complete various tasks through the use of a smart phone app.

The total farm hours worked daily in the springtime and the effect of eliminating some tasks are shown in the below table. The tasks showing the most influence on dairy labour demand in the springtime included: milking; calf care; grassland; and winter feeding.

Table source: Teagasc

“Milking time – which incorporated herding, milking and washing – was responsible for 33% of the total labour input on the farm.

“The next category in terms of importance was cow care and that represented 17% of the labour on the farm. Calf care was responsible for 8% of the labour input,” O’Brien explained.

Differences between most efficient and least efficient farms

Touching on the differences between the most and least efficient farms in terms of the tasks outlined above, she said: “In terms of the most efficient farms, all of them bar one practiced once-a-day milking in the first four weeks.

They also had a higher number of units in their milking system and they had an average of nine rows of cows. They also had more backing gates operating on their farms.

“On the least efficient farms, very few people in the group practiced once-a-day milking in the first four weeks; they had a lower number of units, which meant that they had a higher number of rows of cows; and they also had less backing gates.

“In terms of cow care, most of the efficient farms fed the cows every second day and had less feed areas, whereas most of the least efficient farms fed cows daily and had more feed areas.”

When it comes to calf care, O’Brien explained, the distance to the calf shed was shorter on the most efficient farms, just a few of them used individual calf pens and calves were turned out to grass at six weeks.

“The least efficient farms had a longer distance to the calf location, they all used individual calf pens and calves were turned out to grass at nine weeks,” she said.

Cost savings

When it comes to methods of reducing the hours worked on-farm, O’Brien highlighted results from a modelling exercise which looked at the impacts of three different strategies to reduce labour demand in the spring.

Based on a modelled farm scenario (185 cows), any of the strategies to reduce labour demand – contracting out the milking task, calf rearing and machinery work – did not have a substantial negative impact on the financial returns from the farm (i.e. < 5%).

Therefore, the hours contributed by the labour on-farm per day can be shortened in the springtime through greater use of contractors for the milking process, rearing of calves and machinery work.

But the impact on farm profitability will be dependent not only on the cost of the contracts, she said, but on the value given to the work of the farmer and any other available labour sources on the farm.

If the farmer (and others) does not consider their own labour as having a value, then the financial impact of contracting out tasks to external labour sources would be negative.

The alternative scenario of the farmer considering to retain the original level of labour input on-farm (e.g. 16.6h/day), but using the contractors to save labour that could be otherwise associated with increased cow numbers is also outlined in the below table.

When cow numbers were increased to avail of the time saved by contracting out tasks, there was a substantial positive effect on the net profit.

Cows numbers could be increased to 279, 221 and 210 (an increase of 94, 36 and 25 cows respectively) when contracting the tasks of milking, calf rearing or machinery work respectively in the spring without increasing the length of the working day.

An increase in profitability of 40%, 20% and 15% respectively was associated with greater use of contract milking, calf rearing and machinery work respectively when cow numbers were increased, the modelled work indicated.

The impact of different strategies to reduce labour requirement in the springtime on spring calving dairy farms. Table source: Teagasc