With a shortage of skilled workers both in agriculture and the wider economy, there is increased pressure on the workload on dairy farms.

It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the sense that a shortage of workers increases the workload for those already in the sector and thus makes it a less attractive place to work, thereby exacerbating the problem.

There is no doubt that some dairy farmers have expanded their businesses without adequately considering the labour issue.

Using contractors for machinery work and getting heifers contract-reared is a proven method of reducing workload and thereby reducing the need for labour to be directly employed on the farm.

Key roles

However, key herd management and farm assistant roles are still required on the dairy farm and it’s proving increasingly difficult to find people to fill these roles.

Long hours for low pay and poor working conditions are no longer the case on most farms, but we do hear of horror stories every now and again. Unfortunately, when people get exposed to these operators, it turns them off dairy farming for good.

Of course good facilities, good pay and low hours doesn’t necessarily guarantee ease of recruitment either. How people are treated and made feel by their manager has a big bearing on employee wellbeing and happiness.

There is also an increasing number of farmers who are good with people, have good facilities and offer a good package that just can’t recruit people either.


Before looking at rosters, it’s important to note that all employees should have a written contract of employment, have a written record of hours worked and receive payslips. These are designed to protect both the employee and the employer.

Sometimes, farmers shy away from issuing contracts because they don’t want to come across as too formal, when oftentimes employees start working on farms in an informal basis.

However, it is a legal requirement and, in the event of a workplace inspection, or worse still a health and safety incident, you could be prosecuted for not having these items in place.

Equally, if the relationship sours, the contract of employment can be referenced in any dispute. Without it, any agreements made are hearsay and the benefit of the doubt may go to the employee rather than the employer.


Legally, the maximum amount of hours that can be worked in a week is 48 averaged over four months, or six months in the case of seasonal work.

Employees are also entitled to rest periods such as breaks during the day and time off with no work. There is some good information on these requirements on the Teagasc website, including details on code of practice for compensatory rest.

Rosters are good in the sense that everyone working on the farm knows exactly when they will be on and when they will be off.

They should be flexible enough to allow an employee to take time off at short notice if something important comes up in their life.

Flexibility is key and it’s particularly important where young people are involved

Flexibility is key and it’s particularly important where young people are involved. It’s not fair to expect them to work every weekend - college students being an exception as they probably need a break from socialising during the week.

A big issue I’ve come across is whereby an employee who might be very happy in the job ends up leaving because his or her partner wants them to have more weekends off.

Some of these issues need to be preempted and options discussed. The day the notice is handed in is not the day to discuss different options.

Back to rosters, there are multiple different options available, including those outlined below.

  • 1. 11:3 – this roster involves working 11 days on the trot to get three days off. So every second weekend could be a long weekend. While this roster may be OK for use in springtime, most employees find working the 11 days on period too long and for this reason it’s not considered a good roster. This roster gives six days off every 28 days.
  • 2. 10:4 – this roster gives the same amount of time off on a fortnightly basis as a five-day week does, but the employee has to work 10 days on the trot. Why not do 5:2 instead? This roster gives eight days off every 28 days.
  • 3. 7:3 – this roster involves working seven days on followed by three days off. The downside to this roster is that it doesn’t fit neatly into a week or fortnightly routine, meaning that in any given month, the person could be off or on for a lot of weekends. For this reason, this roster should probably be confined to use in the spring. Over a 30-day month, the employee will have nine days off.
  • 4. 5:2 – this roster doesn’t necessarily mean that employees don’t work weekends, but it can be incorporated into working every second weekend and getting days off during the week instead. For example, an employee could work Monday to Friday one week, Monday to Thursday the following week, do the Saturday and Sunday and come back to work on the Tuesday. There are lots of different variations of this that could work and at the same time incorporate weekends. Over a 28-day period the employee will have eight days off.
  • For me, this last one is probably the best roster as it avoids, for the most part, very long working periods. At most, employees will be working seven days on the trot, followed by two days off, then three days on before their weekend off.

    Flexible start times

    Another consideration is flexible start times. On some large farms, early starts are inevitable, but it should be possible that the early starts can be shared between each employee so that nobody is having to get up too early every morning.

    For example, if there are three people working on the farm, they could decide that one person comes in at 5am two nights per week to get the cows in and start milking while the others come in at 6am and they rotate around.

    Even where two people are working, the early starts can be shared, particularly in the times of year where two people are not needed to be on every day.

    Rosters and start times should be tailored to suit the needs of the employees as much as the farm. Try and get a win-win arrangement at all times when deciding on rosters and working times.