Milk Brady: How to manage stress levels as labour shortages begin to bite

Dairy farmers are burning the midnight oil at this time of year
Dairy farmers are burning the midnight oil at this time of year
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

Spring is a very stressful time for most farmers. Dairy and suckler beef farmers are burning the midnight oil with compact calving patterns in the recommended systems of production. Tillage farmers avail of every available hour to tend to winter crops and plant spring crops.

Long hours and lack of sleep are par for the course for many farmers in spring - some wear this like a badge of honour, but others buckle under the stress. In 2018, the stress and pressure of the wet, late spring was compounded when followed by a severe drought and the threat of a fodder crisis.

Even though it was a good year financially for most farmers, the additional workload from spring right through the summer pushed many farmers to the limit - and some beyond.

The challenges in spring 2019 are different. Thankfully, the weather has been better; however, with an unemployment rate of 5.6pc, our country is near full employment and getting additional help to work on farms is at crisis point.

The lack of farm help is particularly acute on dairy farms. More fertile cows have herds meeting the target of calving 90pc of the herd in just six weeks. This creates a six-week period with a massive workload calving cows, milking cows, feeding calves, spreading fertiliser and on-off grazing where cows alternate between grazing outdoors and feeding indoors, depending on weather and ground conditions.

Many dairy farm businesses with expansion plans that factored in more labour as cow numbers increased are now struggling to get this labour. The bank loan is drawn, the money is spent on the new milk parlour and pollution compliant housing facilities, but the increased cow numbers need to stay to repay the bank loan. This conundrum is causing stress levels to skyrocket on some dairy farms.

Yes, at macro level the Government has introduced a pilot scheme for increased Employment Work Permits to employ non-Eu labour. Farm relief and other recruitment firms have conducted roadshows and recruitment drives abroad to try and attract more labour to work on farms.

The agricultural colleges, institutes of technology and universities have placed students, but all these initiatives have not as yet had the desired effect on the ground. So what can farmers do immediately to minimise spring stress levels?

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The following are some practical tips:

On the farm

* Milk cows once a day.

* Sell bull calves as fast as possible.

* Simplify or delegate calf feeding.

* Sell surplus livestock.

* Get a contractor to spread fertiliser and slurry.

* Employ extra labour.

* Pay your children, neighbours or relations to help.

* Plan tasks in advance.

* Prioritise absolutely necessary tasks over trying to do everything.

Personal health

* Plan designated down-time preferably away from the farm and farming.

* Ensure you get enough sleep.

* Ask for help if you feel it is getting to you.

* If ill, go to the doctor.

* Don't make major business decisions at this time.

* Talk, talk, talk to a family member, friend, advisor or councillor.

In Ireland, we have some of the best farmers in the world when it comes to technical and financial performance in farm businesses. However, we still have a lot to learn when it comes to the core business skills, such as hiring and retaining staff, time-management, delegation of authority, business and strategic planning, and work-life balance.

Some of our pig, poultry and arable farmers have acquired these business skills and built successful farm businesses with significant scale. Many of our dairy farmers are presently learning these skills the hard way.

It is just some of the collateral damage after years of stagnation under EU milk quotas.

There is an onus on Government, agri-researchers and agri-advisors to help farmers in the short term, but, more importantly, to provide strategic guidance on sustainable work practices on farms for the longer term.

Stress and pressure lead to more farm accidents, poor work environments, increased family pressure and, most damaging of all, act as a deterrent to potential successors to farm businesses.

Working hard is all well and good, but if you have a well thought-out, properly resourced plan for your farm, you will enjoy your career as a farmer much more.

Being the owner of such a business and having a career you love means you will never work a day in your life.

Mike Brady is Managing Director at Brady Group agricultural consultants and land agents; email:

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