Irish dairy farmers are in a unique position to provide an attractive workplace, involving working outdoors with animals in a healthy environment.

Farming in Ireland is experiencing a decrease in family-based workforce and a general decline in the number of people employed in agriculture.

The dairy sector, like many other non-agricultural industries such as construction, is often perceived to have long working hours, precarious working conditions and low wages.

Nevertheless, many farmers are excellent employers offering decent employment opportunities with flexible working conditions for a fair wage.

While the six-week calving rate is improving on many farms, this can cause an unbalanced workload.

Employees will opt to work for a farmer who has efficient work practices

To manage the busy calving and breeding seasons, it is essential to have the facilities and practices to match herd size requirements and enough people available to work to ensure everyone gets some time off.

Employees will opt to work for a farmer who has efficient work practices (eg set rosters and cow flow) and facilities in place (eg optimum number of milking units), which will also reduce labour input. Likewise, farmers who have good people management skills, especially good communication skills, find it easier to attract and retain quality employees.

Both work organisation and labour efficiency contribute to social sustainability

The reduced availability of farm workers, combined with farmers themselves placing greater emphasis on achieving a good work-life balance, has led to work organisation, efficiency and people management emerging as priority research topics.

Both work organisation and labour efficiency contribute to social sustainability, which is less well researched than economic and environmental sustainability.

Therefore, the current research programme aims to make farms an attractive workplace for both the farmer and their family as well as those external to the business (relief workers, full- and part-time workers and contractors).

A key objective is to optimise the family dairy farm in terms of herd size, while meeting labour needs and maintaining a satisfactory work-life balance. Results of a case study with four farms highlighted that 117 cows can be effectively operated with 2,986 hours of labour input/year or 54 hours/week while still achieving the key targets for a spring-calving herd. Several key requirements were identified to achieve this high level of efficiency:

  • Compact calving (87% in six weeks).
  • Excellent work structures, including good organisation and appropriate practices (eg mechanical cleaning of calf houses).
  • Efficient facilities with capacity matching herd size and in good working order (eg seven to eight rows of cows at milking, two calf sheds in close proximity to the milking parlour).
  • Good use of technologies, including automation (eg automatic calf feeder) and smartphone apps to make work easier and more enjoyable.