5 January 2001

Plan with care to lessen impact of staffing cuts

By Hannah Velten

RUNNING livestock units with less labour in an effort to cut costs may mean extra work and reduction in stock performance, so close scrutiny of daily routines should be considered before reducing staff levels.

With recent MAFF figures confirming that more than 450 workers are leaving the agricultural industry every week (News, Dec 22), all livestock sectors are feeling the strain of under-staffing, due to forced redundancies or a lack of skilled stockpersons.

"With labour costs equivalent to 4p/litre, many dairy units, especially family-run herds, have not been able to avoid making some herdpersons redundant," says Ian Powell, ADAS business manager.

He believes this leads to stress and strain on units, as remaining staff have to work harder and longer to keep up with routine tasks, and he questions whether this is sustainable or whether people will run themselves into the ground and leave the industry.

The beef and sheep industry is also suffering as many herds are increasing in size without a corresponding expansion of the workforce.

"Until a problem occurs in a flock, increasing numbers of stock can be handled by one shepherd, but then there is a realisation that they have been coping on a knife-edge," says Lesley Stubbings, an independent sheep consultant.

When labour is stretched in any sector, attention to detail may slip, leading to hidden production costs and a drop in performance. This is a particular problem in the pig industry, says Ron Chambers, pig business management consultant for Signet.

"Slower growth rates and higher costs/kg gained may occur when there is no time to ensure regular sterilisation of housing between batches of growing pigs."

These concerns mean that before shedding paid labour, close scrutiny of how operations are carried out should be undertaken, advises Mr Powell. "Slim-lining tasks and making the daily routine more efficient means time and effort can be reduced so workloads can be managed by fewer staff."

On pig units, Mr Chambers suggests using part-time labour to undertake non-productive tasks such as cleaning housing, to allow skilled stockpeople more time to pay attention to production. Mechanising operations such as feed handling using hoppers and augers, will also reduce time and effort, he adds.

On cattle and sheep units, more time can be freed up by considering contracting out operations such as muck spreading, silaging and baling, says Elwyn Rees, ADAS beef specialist.

But during periods of peak labour demand such as lambing, extra staff may have to be drafted in. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to employ experienced shepherds, says Ms Stubbings. "As flocks are sold we are losing good shepherds to other industries, which is leading to a shortage of skilled lambers, especially in the south and east of England."

Lack of skilled labour is being most felt in the pig industry, where, unlike other sectors, many units are eager to recruit full-time staff, says Mr Chambers. "Good stockmen have left the industry and there are few students who are interested in a career in pigs – it is a time bomb ticking and we need to encourage more skilled entrants into the industry."

For those producers unwilling or unable to shed skilled labour, other major costs may have to be reduced instead, with rented land and machinery being two areas where costs could be cut most easily, say consultants.

On many beef units, Mr Rees suggests looking closely at the cost of renting extra land to qualify for extensification payments. "If income gained from payments does not justify the cost of rented land, then it is better to retrench and keep fewer cattle."

Machinery costs could be reduced by using a local machinery ring to share machinery for operations such as feeding, suggests Mr Powell. "Many expensive pieces of kit lie idle on farm, so sharing bigger pieces of equipment means costs can be saved." &#42

UNDER-STAFFING

&#8226 Workloads sustainable?

&#8226 Leads to hidden costs.

&#8226 Look at slim-lining tasks.