Farm Ireland

Friday 20 April 2018

Finding the ideal work-life balance for dairy farmers

Most dairy farmers would like a few more hours with their family.
Most dairy farmers would like a few more hours with their family.

Nora O'Donovan

Most dairy farmers I meet are farming because they enjoy the work and the lifestyle. But most would also like a few more hours a week to spend with family or pursue their hobbies. With this target in mind and the busy spring behind them, my discussion groups focused their May meeting on labour efficiency.

We started by getting the host farmer to complete a survey of labour usage on his farm. Currently over 500 farmers have completed this analysis for their farm over the last year. Each host farmer received an individual report and a group report. This allowed him to benchmark himself against the group and against the most labour efficient farms.

Table 1 outlines the main difference between the average and most labour efficient farms.

At our group meeting we spent time looking at the main areas of labour demand on the farm, with the purpose of providing suggestions for improving efficiency on the host farm.

These suggestions had to include the initial and annual cost involved and the reduction in hours worked. Improvements which don't save on time but do save on backache are also important.

I have outlined in the table below some of the crucial areas that were discussed at our meetings.

There is a huge variation in the length of time spent milking on farms.

Ideally you should be milking 7-8 rows of cows. This means that for every 100 cows you should have 12-16 units. Changing milking facilities is a major financial investment and you need a business plan to justify the investment.

Also Read

The most efficient farms on the labour survey had a shorter milking interval between morning and evening milking. This can be reduced to nine hours or less.


The start of evening milking is 45 minutes earlier on these farms and this is a key factor in determining the end of your working day.

Other suggestions from my discussion groups for improving the milking process include parlour feeders, automatic scrapers or slatted collecting yards and drafting facilities controlled from the pit.

Having cows at correct body condition at calving and using easy calving bulls are critical in reducing the number of cows that need assistance at calving. Having a camera in the calving pen might also get you a few extra nights in bed.

Mechanically cleaning out calving pens will save both time and effort.

Suitable calf housing and automatic calf feeders may be a big help but need to be weighed against the significant costs associated.

The benefits of group penning calves and the use of teat feeders, was highlighted in all of my groups.

The method of moving milk from the milking parlour to the calf house also generated plenty of lively debate.

Ideally milk should be pumped to the calf house and, as pointed out by one of the host farmers, it need not be an expensive set-up.

He uses a pump bought for less than €100 to move the milk from a bucket in the pit to the calf house which is next door.

Calves fed once a day from three weeks of age on a recent Moorpark trial took less time and had similar weight gain to those fed twice a day.

Some farmers are slow to take up this practice but those who have are very happy with it.

All agreed that having finished calving before breeding starts makes life less complicated. A shorter breeding season results in compact calving and a shorter calf rearing season.

Heat detection aids and synchronisation of replacement heifers reduces the time spent observing cows.

As we know, spring is the busiest and most stressful time of the year on farms.

But we also have short memories; so now is a good time to think back to where the problems arose this spring and put in place improvements for next year.

Freeing up time could allow you more time to plan and develop your business or it could allow you more time with your family.

Nora O'Donovan is a Teagasc business and technology advisor based in Tralee, Co Kerry

Indo Farming