Treat skilled staff like gold dust
Have you got a top class herdsman? You have! Then look after him, because according to Michael Day, managing director of Dairyforce, the leading contract herdcare specialists, developing and retaining a suitably skilled, adequately sized labour force is likely to be the next major issue facing dairy farmers.
In response to declining milk prices and ever tightening margins, many dairy farmers have cut their labour bill while at the same time looking to increase cow numbers and push cows to the limit. The goal has been not only to increase litres produced to spread overheads but also to drive down overheads themselves.
In Mr Day’s view we are fast approaching the stage where labour may need to be increased again, but there will almost certainly be a shortfall in suitably trained candidates.
“While I fully understand why many have seen labour savings as a way to retain profits, there is only so far any system can be pushed,’’ he says.
“Reducing staffing levels inevitably means more work falling on the owner’s shoulders. At the same time, there are increased management demands through farm assurance, environmental legislation and other schemes, not to mention running a profitable and often complex business.
“As farmers work longer hours, so there is a real risk that attention to detail may slip. For many, reducing labour may be far less of a saving in practice than they had expected.”
Mr Day predicts demand for high quality farm staff will increase as the real economics of reducing labour come home to roost. However, he is concerned that there will be insufficient candidates available.
“Recently the Institute of Directors launched a scathing attack on the Government, arguing that more young people need to be encouraged to develop the skills required for key trades such as plumbers, electricians and joiners. They maintain that the prospects are good but all the incentives are geared towards encouraging young people to follow often non-vocational courses merely to obtain a degree.
“They could have added dairyman to the list of crucial, highly skilled jobs where there is an increasing shortfall as the number of new entrants has fallen alarmingly.
“In addition, with the general reduction in farm labour many capable farmworkers have left the industry, reducing the pool of experienced people looking for agricultural careers. They prefer to drive vans delivering internet goods than find alternative farm work. At the same time the skills required to work on today’s highly sophisticated farm businesses have increased. Today’s milker of cows requires high skill levels commensurate with a key operator in the human food chain.
“However, as an industry we have seen wholly inadequate incentives to recruit and train people to become the highly proficient herdsmen and tractor drivers of the future. The result is we are losing experienced people and not doing enough to source top quality replacements. We are already experiencing a downfall in the number of suitable candidates to fill relief vacancies and I fear this may extend to full time positions soon.
“As an industry we need to see greater incentives to train new entrants, equipping them with the skills to meet the demands of a modern farm business working in an increasingly transparent food chain. DEFRA must take the lead in this respect,” he says.
To offset the shortfall and help retain capable staff, he says that farmers will have to look increasingly to relief services as a means of ensuring a pool of skilled labour while controlling costs. He also believes farming should take a leaf out of industry’s book and make more use of professional recruitment organisations.
“A herdsman today can be looking after stock worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, generating an even larger turnover. Selecting the wrong person can be extremely costly and the chances of this happening increase when there is a smaller pool to select from. Most farmers only need to recruit a new staff member infrequently and as such their selection skills may be a little rusty.
“On the other hand, professional recruitment companies have the skills and experience to select the most suitable candidates. They are familiar with the steps in the recruitment process and manage the whole exercise in a timely and controlled fashion – something that benefits the farmer and the applicants. I believe more farmers will look on professional recruitment as a sound investment, especially if the skills decline continues.’’