28 June 2002

Solution for labour crisis

Irish researchers are

developing practical

solutions for a range of

problems such as labour

shortages and declining

cow fertility.

Richard Allison reports

from the Moorepark Dairy

Research Centre, Co Cork

TWEAKING the daily routine of milking and feeding calves can shorten the working day by up to one-and-a-half hours, helping to solve the labour crisis on many Irish dairy units.

The supply of hired and family labour is declining, but demand continues to be high, says Teasgasc researcher Bernadette OBrien. "This is leading to an increasing shortage of skilled farm labour in Ireland."

Reasons for the high labour requirement include the move towards larger dairy units to maintain competitiveness and poor farm design, making many tasks labour intensive. In addition, many jobs outside agriculture are now more attractive in terms of better pay and shorter working hours."

Dr OBrien believes the solution is for producers to use the shrinking labour force more efficiently. "In addition, shortening the working day to about eight hours and improving working conditions will make it easier to attract staff."

But there is no data on how much labour is required. This prompted a survey of 143 farms, ranging between 140,000 litres and 1.4m litres/year across Ireland, she says.

"The survey revealed that the average input was nine hours/day for dairy-related tasks, peaking at more than 11 hours/day during May. This is higher than the target of eight hours/day and does not include breaks.

Milking was the main task accounting for 33% of total time (see table). When comparing the top and bottom performing herds, there was a one-hour difference in time spent milking. "Further investigation showed that more than 68% of less efficient herds had more than seven cows/parlour unit, compared with only 8% of top herds."

Entry by narrow doors and having to walk to the exit gate to open it were also identified as major factors increasing time spent milking. Using this information, the units studied achieved an average reduction of 30 minutes for milking, some reduced time input by one-and-a-half hours, says Dr OBrien.

"Changes include fitting exit gates operated from any point in the parlour, extending yard size and installing new roadways to encourage cows to walk faster."

However, not all time reductions are advisable. Cutting back on teat preparation will lead to increases in total bacterial count and somatic cell count. "Its not just a matter of pushing cows through the as quickly as possible," she adds.

Calf rearing also accounts for two hours/day in March for spring calving herds. One strategy implemented by producers was to rear calves in batches, instead of individual feeding with buckets.

She believes using a trolley behind a quad bike or pumping milk to the calf housing from the dairy will cut time. "Feeding after milking instead of during can also reduce time spent feeding calves in addition to lowering milking times."

Dairy labour input

Task % of time

Milking 33

Maintenance 15

Office related 11

Grassland management 11

Feeding 7

Calving and calf care 7