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.
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.
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.