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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘A significant proportion of the farmers work up to 81 hours/week on average’

 In this article, Conail Keown, CAFRE Senior Dairy Development Adviser, looks at dairy farm labour efficiency.

Putting it simply, ‘labour’ is about work and who does that work.

The key aim for any dairy business is maximising efficiency and profitability on a sustainable basis for the future.

Dairy farmers work long and hard, day in and day out. However, they need to ensure the production model is socially sustainable and it enables an appropriate work-life balance.

As dairy farms continue to grow their milk production here in Northern Ireland, important issues are being raised around labour efficiency and the provision of labour to cope with this expansion.

Farm labour is one of the biggest costs in the production system, and increasingly, it is becoming one of the key challenges facing dairy farmers today.


As part of a CAFRE initiative, two business development groups (BDGs) in the Newtownards area are involved in a dairy labour survey.

The survey is about establishing baseline information for dairy farmers in the groups and providing answers to several key questions that individual farmers must ask:

  1. How efficient is my dairy farm in terms of labour input?
  2. What areas or tasks within my farm business need to improve in relation to labour efficiency?
  3. How can I make work practises on the farm more efficient?
  4. Can I prioritise capital investment to improve labour efficiency?
  5. And how can I attract highly skilled people to commit to the farm?
Labour challenges facing your farm this winter

Weekly hours worked

For many of the participants in the survey, paid staff have become an essential feature of the farm business, particularly part-time staff.

As farms have developed, a significant proportion of the farmers have tried to do all the extra work, working up to 81 hours a week on average.

This practice is difficult to maintain in the long-term and can lead to poor efficiency or burnout of family or paid labour.

Compact calving

With all the benefits a compact calving profile can bring to a business, including improved fertility performance, simplified heifer rearing enterprise and improved herd health protocols, one of the challenges it presents is a seasonal and concentrated labour demand profile.

Significant planning and preparation are required to manage this increased labour demand during calving, and the associated calf-rearing tasks.

One of the benefits of increased scale should be the ability of the farm owner to control their own hours worked, and like any business owner, a dairy farmer wants to maximise the value of paid labour and improve staff retention.

It is, therefore, vital that best practice labour efficiency measures are adopted.

What is labour efficiency?

While total hours worked on-farm by family members and paid employees is important, an efficiency metric is required.

Hours worked per cow per year takes the total annual hours and divides it by the herd size. Initial data suggests larger herds tend to work less time per individual cow, gaining efficiencies with time dilution on some tasks.

For example, herding cows will still take 20 minutes whether there are 100-150 cows milking.

In saying that, variation in hours worked per cow is massive across both BDGs, ranging from 22.5hours/cow/year to a significant 55.7hours/cow/year.

This can be down to several reasons, including milking routine, facilities, and work organisation.

While scale may improve work efficiency per cow, the gains made will usually not be enough to offset a change in total workload.

In simple terms, keeping more stock will result in more work (hours) needed on the farm overall.

The chart highlights initial data from the survey.


While milking (which includes herding, cubicle preparation and parlour wash down) takes up most of the time, feeding cows is also a significant labour demand at 16%.

This data is for winter and summer months of 2022 for all farms in the survey.


The table below illustrates key efficiency ranges and total labour input for the group.

Survey 2022
  Group range
Herd size (cows) 86 – 555
Total annual farm labour
input (hours)
4,200 – 13,040
Efficiency metric
Hours /cow/year
22.5 -55.7


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