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Tuesday 26 September 2017

Why farmer 'burnout' could derail dairy sector growth (90-hour working weeks 'not unusual')

Farmers overwhelmed by workload says Dairygold boss as co-op launches shareholder survey

ICMSA's Pat McCormack
Dairygold plant in Cork. Photo: Paddy Cummins/Provision
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Farmer burnout could derail growth in the dairy industry, Dairygold chairman James Lynch has warned.

The State's largest farmer-owned dairy co-operative has launched an "in-depth shareholder survey" to address the issue.

The analysis, expected to be completed by mid-summer, will feed into Dairygold's expansion plans up to 2025 and beyond.

"We're getting a lot of noise on labour, particularly in the first six months of the year," said the Dairygold chairman. "If something doesn't happen in terms of the availability of labour on the farm, it's going to prohibit or restrict the growth at farm level."

And while the adoption of management techniques such as compact calving had helped improve margins, the challenges of calving 60pc of herds inside three weeks, or 80pc inside six weeks, can overwhelm farmers.

"They have no help, they are not getting the time off, and more stress is added by bad weather, so we're looking for feedback on what needs to happen," said Mr Lynch. "We haven't got a labour force aimed towards manual labour at farm level."

A massive expansion in dairy cow numbers since 2015 has ramped up the pressure at farm level.

The increased workload has already taken a toll, with farm accident figures confirming that dairy units are among the most dangerous enterprises in an already lethal sector.

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Pat McCormack of ICMSA accepted that there was "a significantly higher threat of burnout" among dairy farmers now than a decade ago.

"It is not unusual for dairy farmers to put down 90-hour working weeks at this time of year when calving around the clock, accompanied by numerous deadlines for schemes," said Mr McCormack.

Exhaustion

"Farmers are finding themselves mentally and physically drained to the point of near exhaustion," he said.

"We're very conscious of it and unless we start actively trying to alleviate this workload, both physically and in terms of stress, we're going to see a situation where fathers and mothers will be reluctant to see their sons and daughters try to carry it on," added Mr McCormack.

Last year, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) described full-time dairy farms as the most "lethal" workplace in the country, with the risk factor for fatal injury 24 times higher than in the average workplace.

Teagasc research has found that while dairying accounts for less than one-sixth of farms, fatal accidents on dairy farms now account for three out of every five farm fatalities.

Those most at risk are full-time dairy farmers aged 55 plus and working over 30ha.

Mr Lynch said there was "a job of work to be done" to bring the next generation of farmers into dairying.

"Succession has to be viable, no one wants to see their family members turned into slaves. You want to be sure there is a good living out of it, otherwise they're not going to be there, absolutely not."

He added that expanding herd sizes was not a must for dairy farmers.

"The average farmer is sustainable at 80 or 90 cows at the moment. Expansion to 200-300 will happen for some but it's not necessary. The quality and lifestyle is going to be more important, and rightly so," he said.

In 2010, the average herd size in Ireland was 53 cows. In 2016, that figure had increased to 85 cows, and Teagasc estimate that in 2017, the average herd size will probably be around 90 cows.

Dairygold, which has 7,000 shareholders and 3,000 milk suppliers, urged the Government, Teagsac and farm organisations to boost communications around farm partnerships, tax incentives and long-term leases for young farmers.

"Young people want to be involved," said Mr Lynch.

"People are getting ­creative and inventive on how they can work with their ­neighbours to work parts of the land together and at the same time be efficient.

"If you pool your resources together, you will get a better quality of life out of it and maximise return at the same time."

'Lean management'

Dairygold has also started a "lean management pilot programme" with 12 farmers based around principles of "working smarter and not harder" at farm level.

Lean agriculture focuses on the flow of materials and information through your business systems, and stoppages that can occur including paperwork issues and delays due to machinery breakdowns.

"Lean manufacturing principles have been adopted by industry for years," said Mr Lynch.

"The pilot has been embraced by the farmers and it will demonstrate to our other suppliers what best efficiency looks like, how to avoid duplication and how to make better use of time.

"It all ties in to the farmer having a better quality of life."


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