Dairy farmers risk destroying their quality of life for little return by striving too hard for increased output, according to the results from a new labour survey by Kite Consulting.

The firm’s Edward Lott said: “One message that came through strongly was that the level of work undertaken has become increasingly out of step with the financial return that farmers were able to take out of the business.

“Three-quarters of the farmers questioned said that they would be happy to work a 50 to 60-hour week, but actually up to 85% worked 70-80 hours.

The industry is perpetuating a long-hours culture.”

Much of his work is now centred on trying to improve the work-life balance of clients, said Mr Lott.

“This can be by simplifying systems to reduce time input or by investing in expanding the business so extra labour can be justified.”

Mr Lott said many farmers thought that an annual milk output of 1m litres a man was a good benchmark for their businesses to achieve, but in reality this was an overly daunting and often unrealistic target.

“If you can achieve 1m litres what is the price? Does it mean working 100 hours a week and taking no holiday? We need to look at sustainable benchmarks that build in both lifestyle and financial sustainability.”

An output of 300 litres per man per hour was a sensible target, said Mr Lott. “This builds in top-25% financial efficiency but is based on a need to create more sustainable working lifestyles for farmers.

Benchmark

“A benchmark of 300 litres focuses the mind on how to work smarter not harder.

There is variability in efficiency right across the industry, even within our own top 25%, but we know that there are farmers who are achieving high profitability with sustainable hours and we need to learn from them.”

Kite’s top-25% performing clients produced on average 294 litres per man per hour over about 2400 hours during the year, or 704,000 litres, and have a labour productivity that is 40% higher than the bottom quartile of farm milk producers.

“I suspect that that much of the industry works many more hours than this and achieves less than 200 litres per man per hour.

“From our survey, farmers said to us that if they could work 50 hours a week and be able to take four weeks’ holiday a year, then this would dramatically improve their quality of life,” Mr Lott said.

“On this basis each full-time member of the team would contribute 2400 hours a year and, if a labour drawings cost of 4p/litre was put across this, then it works out at a respectable 12/hour, compared with other recent studies that show many farmers work for the equivalent of 2-3/hour.”

andrew.shirley@rbi.co.uk