Dairy farming is – like farming as a whole – often portrayed as a job for men. However, this is a stereotype not rooted in fact.

While it is true to say that most farm owners in Ireland are men, it’s not only men working on dairy farms.

The role that women currently play on dairy farms in Ireland and can play in the future is often overlooked.

European recognition

That is not the case in Europe, where the role of women in farming is better recognised.

I remember visiting large farms in Germany, where it was primarily women doing all the milking.

These women are employed part-time, just to milk or to feed calves.

It’s a similar story in Denmark and Holland, where women, many of whom live in the local village, work part-time on dairy farms.

Indeed, an EU study from 2019 suggests that 41% of all jobs in agriculture in Europe are occupied by women.

When agriculture, forestry and fishing are combined, the female participation level drops to 34%.

However, there is a big difference between women’s participation in full-time employment compared with part-time employment.

The study states that across all jobs in the EU, 80% of all part-time jobs are held by women

Less than 30% of full-time jobs in agriculture, forestry and fishing are held by women, whereas around half (52%) of part-time jobs in the sector are held by women.

The study states that across all jobs in the EU, 80% of all part-time jobs are held by women.

Within agriculture, forestry and fishing, the countries with the highest participation of women in part-time jobs are Germany, Poland and the Netherlands.

Is it a coincidence that these countries also happen to be among the largest dairy producers in Europe?

Why dairy?

So why is part-time work on dairy farms such an attractive job for so many women across Europe?

There are likely to be multiple individual reasons why, but in my view the most obvious one is that close to a full-time income can be earned while working part-time.

... the person milking five days a week will have a gross pay of €600 for doing 20 hours work

Typically, the process of milking cows takes approximately two hours, morning and evening.

If working five days a week, that’s 20 hours per week in total.

Typically, pay for milking 150 cows is in the region of €60 gross per milking, so, in this case, the person milking five days a week will have a gross pay of €600 for doing 20 hours work or an hourly rate of €30/hour.

Belinda O' Neill doing a relief milking for a local farmer near Rathcormack, Co Waterford. \ Donal O'Leary

Over the course of the milking year, presuming milking is shut down for four weeks, that person can earn a gross income of almost €29,000 per annum.

On some farms, milking takes place all year and in such instances, gross annual income would be in excess of €31,000.

These rates of pay would include statutory minimum holiday allowances.

This level of income compares favourably with other sectors.

For example, a secondary school teacher earns around €31,000 per year up to five years post-qualification and while the milker might not have the summer off, they do have a long break over winter.

Job benefits

However, it must be acknowledged that most people don’t do a job solely for the money involved.

When it comes to working as a specialist milker on a dairy farm, there are certain aspects that particularly appeal to women.

The first is the timing of the job and how it can slot into everyday family life.

I know of many situations where both men and women have the cows milked in the morning before their children get up, get their breakfast and get ready for school or crèche.

It’s the same in the evenings, where milking time revolves around school pick-ups and dinner time.

The point here is that as a part-time job, full-time milking is particularly suited to women who may not be in a position to work full-time outside of the home.

At one with nature

Other attractions of milking include being able to work with animals and being involved in animal husbandry.

People who get to work with animals cherish the variety with the job and the contentment that working with animals brings.

On top of this, milkers get to spend time out in the open and in nature, bringing cows to and from the milking parlour.

Of course, it can also bring challenges, such as dealing with sick or off-form animals and having the skills to recognise these signs and symptoms.

Imagine getting paid for doing a workout

Another aspect of milking is the health and fitness side of the job. This can be both positive and negative.

If the incorrect milking technique is used, then repetitive strain injury may present itself.

However, where the correct technique is employed, then milking is a great way of keeping fit, as it provides a whole body workout, both while milking itself, but also while fetching cows for milking.

I know in some cases where the quad bike has been ditched for a bicycle or a pair of runners. Imagine getting paid for doing a workout!

Big demand for dairy jobs in 2021

As dairy herds continue to expand, the demand for labour on dairy farms continues to grow.

Employment on dairy farms is varied, ranging from full-time managerial positions to part-time operator roles.

According to John Brosnan from Farm Relief Services (FRS), last year was a funny year for demand for labour on farms.

“The spring was as busy as ever, but then, when COVID-19 hit, demand for workers changed.

"I suppose farmers weren’t able to get away like they were in other years, as all weddings and matches were cancelled.

"On some farms, there was more labour available as children were home from college, so that also had an impact.”

Strong demand

However, he expects demand for workers on farms to increase in 2021, particularly in spring.

“We normally run an exchange with people from New Zealand who come here for overseas experience. We also take on people from overseas with work permits, but none of that can happen this year.”

John says that the ideal candidate for FRS will have some experience of working on farms, but that additional training will be provided.

Outside of the FRS, there is a myriad of job opportunities on dairy farms, which are advertised in the farming press, online, on farm store or mart noticeboards and through word of mouth.

Experience is attractive, no matter what the role is.

If it's experience you’re looking for, speak to respected dairy farmers in your area about gaining experience on their farm.

Most dairy farmers are only too happy to see people progress in the industry.

When assessing a job opportunity, money is one factor, but so too is the time off, roster, facilities and atmosphere around the farm. All of these things are important considerations.

Read more

Watch: Women & Agriculture award winners

Milking parlour construction to continue