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Changes needed to keep staff down on the farm

Changes needed to keep staff down on the farm

The Great Futures in Dairying Plan, developed in collaboration with farmers, sector stakeholders, and DairyNZ, aims to help mitigate the labour shortage in the dairy sector.

The plan looks at ways to make the industry a more attractive career choice and sets out how the industry can attract, retain and grow the workforce on farm.

While the plan looks at making it easier to attract people to a career in dairy, staff retention is one of the industry’s biggest opportunities, says DairyNZ senior scientist Dr Callum Eastwood.

“The more we can improve the workplace and make it more rewarding and enjoyable, the more likely we are to hold onto the people we have,” Eastwood says.

Change the Job is one of the three main areas in the plan, and it looks at identifying and addressing the major challenges facing the dairy industry and what features make up an attractive and productive workplace.

Sleep deprivation, hours on-farm, farm safety and start times have been identified as key challenges, and DairyNZ scientists have been researching how to address those challenges.

“The challenges are quite contextual because it depends on the farm and the person, but the major challenge is the early start to the workday.

“This is what we call ‘unsociable hours’.”

While most people don’t mind working long days, the early start can be unappealing, as could the workday encroaching on evening family time, Eastwood said.

‘We also include in unsociable hours the hours that run later in the day when you really just want to get home, have dinner with your family and wind down before bed.”

The physicality of the work and managing the expectations of the next generations also need to be considered.

“The new generations coming into the dairy workplace expect to have more autonomy in their job and flexibility of hours,” Eastwood said.

The obvious barrier to overcoming unsociable hours on dairy farms is the milking schedule, but adjusting milking times even slightly can make a huge difference to the well-being of workers.

“There are opportunities to shorten the time between morning and afternoon milking so you can start a little later in the morning.

“There are also other options around milking once a day, and that fits some farms, but it’s not an option for all.”

Research has also looked at the benefits of flexible milking, such as three times in two days or ten times in seven days, an option becoming more common on farms.

Ten-in-seven milkings usually mean only milking once a day at the weekends, creating a more flexible roster and allowing staff to have at least some of the weekend off, Eastwood said.

Farm technology, such as wearables, are another way to reduce farm hours or free up time for higher-value farm work.

A recent survey conducted by DairyNZ showed that 16 per cent of farms are using animal wearables, compared to 5 per cent in 2018, which Eastwood describes as a massive jump.

“I think farmers have been more prepared to invest with the higher milk prices over the last couple of years.

Animal wearables, when used for heat detection, for example, can save time and help with taking one job away from a particular person away from that job, which helps the team.

Automated technologies are gaining in popularity and can free up staff time, such as automatic cup removers, automatic teat sprays and automatic drafting, particularly in rotary sheds.

“A lot of the technology is relatively simple and can be retrofitted; you don’t have to build a new shed.

“Farmers can see quite easily what the benefit of those technologies is to their business,” Eastwood said.

DairyNZ has been working with dairy farmers over the last three years to understand better how farm systems and milking schedules impact the sleep patterns of farmers.

A study conducted last year showed that farmers averaged seven hours of sleep per night one week before calving, but this dropped by half an hour per night by the end of the season.

“That’s an average, so that half an hour is quite a lot when taken into the context of people only getting six and a half hours of sleep and going down to six.

“That 30 minutes is actually quite precious.”

Lack of sleep has a flow effect on most aspects of the farm and workplace productivity.

Sleep and fatigue are significant risk factors for on-farm injuries, team culture, and decision-making.

Eastwood said farmers may struggle to make good decisions if fatigued.

“Our key takeaway from these studies so far is that whatever farms can do to start milking a bit later or give their team the occasional sleep-in is really valuable,” Eastwood said.

by Claire Inkson