About one-third of British dairy farmers have employed staff from overseas, a survey has revealed.

The survey by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers showed that more than half of those workers were from Poland.

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Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and New Zealand were the next most important sources of workers, but were some way behind.

Almost two-thirds of those who recruited foreign staff said it was because there were not enough UK workers available.

RABDF policy director Tim Brigstocke said the survey confirmed that migrants from Eastern Europe were an essential part of the dairy farming workforce.

“If the central and eastern Europeans went back to their native countries, then dairy farming would be in dire straits, as so many farmers are now dependent on this migrant labour force,” he said.

The survey, which covered 250 dairy farmers from different regions, also showed that just under 40% of businesses had struggled to recruit new workers in the past five years.

Farmers listed willingness to work, being a team player and communication skills as the top priorities when looking for staff.

Most businesses said they had take on migrant workers because of the lack of British applicants but others pointed to the better value for money and specific skills.

“It’s a fact that many central and eastern Europe citizens are highly qualified and therefore provide excellent head herdsmen,” Mr Brigstocke said.

Of the 250 farmers who responded to the research, 52% had more than 200 cows and more than half had a milk yield of 6,000-9,000 litres a cow a year.

The RABDF wants to expand the survey from these preliminary findings to take in the experiences of 2,500 farmers.

It will share its findings with government, the wider farming sector and the agricultural colleges to explore the issue of why some businesses feel there is a lack of UK recruits available.

Polish staff prove ‘huge success’

RABDF vice-chairman Derrick Davies, who milks 300 cows near Reading, has been employing foreign workers for 11 years.

His foreign staff have mostly come from Poland, with one worker from Bulgaria.

“We were expanding and amalgamating two dairy businesses and wanted some extra help to do it,” he said.

“After spending a lot of time and money advertising to get staff, we just were not successful at all.

“I went to an agency and they sent two people over from Poland within 48 hours.”

Since then, Mr Davies has had several different Polish workers, with each departing staff member often helping to find a replacement from their home country.

He says the experience had been a huge success because he had invested in integrating the foreign staff into the team and training them.

Some of the steps he has taken include:

  • Writing standard procedures for different dairy tasks on the wall in both English and Polish
  • Sending the workers to evening classes to improve their English
  • Learning some basic Polish himself
  • Bringing the foreign staff along to monthly team meetings
  • Arranging social events to help the new workers settle in with the rest of the staff and the community.

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