Many dairy consultants now recommend offering staff a 50-55-hour working week for the best work-life balance, but can it be done?
Farmers Weekly spoke to Andersons consultant Jake Armstrong-Frost to get tips on how to implement a shorter week.
We also talk to three farmers who have seen huge benefits from reducing staff working hours.
1. Make sure the business is as efficient as possible
The most important factor in cutting working hours is running an efficient business.
Rather than letting the number of staff you have dictate how things are done, look at the business as a whole and ask why you do things a certain way.
This does not mean getting rid of staff, rather it is to ensure you are using them efficiently.
2. Manage working hours
Rotas are a really useful way of planning time to ensure everyone has regular lie-ins and days off.
Long hours have become an accepted part of dairy farming. But if you look at the construction industry, for example, working hours are much more regulated now to minimise the risk of accidents and injury.
Farms would benefit from a similar approach – the more rested staff are, the more productive and alert they are likely to be.
3. Consider part-time/casual labour
Part-time or casual staff will not add a lot to the overall labour bill, and using a bank of reliable people to take the pressure off the full-time team is really helpful.
Staff recruitment and retention are particular problems for the dairy industry, and being able to offer better hours can make the job more attractive.
Part-time staff can also cover for holidays, staff absence or illness.
4. Plan ahead for busy periods
Block-calving dairy farms will probably struggle to maintain 50 hours/week during peak periods.
Encouraging time off before the busy season can help ensure everyone is fit and rested.
Having the flexibility to bring in casual labour if someone in the core team is flagging can be useful during peak times, too.
5. Hold regular staff meetings to make sure everyone is on board with your ethos
These do not need to be formal, but engaging with staff regularly to ensure they are happy with their work and working hours can help resolve any issues before they become major problems.
Work concerns can be a difficult subject for employees to broach, so leading the conversation can be really beneficial.
Making sure staff feel appreciated and valued is key – everyone has to be on the same page.
6. Make sure you are labour-efficient as an employer
This means not letting the £10/hour jobs such as scraping up or feeding cut into the time you could be spending on £50/hour jobs such as management and planning.
While this applies only if you employ multiple people, the more time you spend working on organisation and communication, the more efficient you can become.
The principles of “lean management” are a good starting point for anyone who cannot see where to start making themselves more efficient.
7. Remember that fewer hours do not necessarily mean less profit
The attitude that you have to work long hours to be successful sometimes holds the industry back. If you can achieve the same profit and be home by 5.30pm each evening, why wouldn’t you do want to do that?
Case study: Philip Halhead
Knowledge gained from leadership courses has helped Lancashire farmer Philip Halhead cut working hours to about 55 hours a week and set the business up to run itself so efficiently that he works predominately off-farm.
The 300-head herd at Norbreck Farm is milked three times a day, with the day team starting at 5am and finishing at 4:30pm, and the night team working 8pm-11pm.
Benefits from the change include improved herd health and a better working environment for both Mr Halhead and his staff.
While reducing working hours can require a huge shift in mindset, Mr Halhead says his leadership knowledge has really helped.
“Leadership courses have given me a much sharper focus on what I needed to know to be a good manager,” he says.
“I have changed how I look and deal with staff and also have a vision of how to operate the farm and my genetics business alongside each other.
“My advice is to try and make yourself redundant from your own business.
To do that, you need to put protocols and management in place that enable you to hand over the reins to staff who are happy and knowledgeable about where the business is heading.
“It can take a bit of time to get a team to gel effectively, but when you do, you can achieve a better work-life balance for everyone involved.”
Case study: Giles Bristol
Sussex farmer Giles Bristol runs a 350-cow autumn block calving herd, so staff management needs a little more thought around peak times.
In a standard week, Mr Bristol’s three full-time staff work 10 days in 14, usually comprising a three-day weekend and a day off in the following week, which he says keeps staff well-rested.
Working hours are 5:30am to 5:30pm, with an hour each for breakfast and lunch.
Maintaining these hours through calving is difficult, so instead, the team works an average of 50 hours a week across 12 months, dropping to 44 hours a week from 1 February until dry-off in June, after which the workload naturally drops away.
In addition, staff are offered every other afternoon off to reimburse them for the extra time worked during calving.
As well as regular time off, he offers £1,000 to each staff member to invest in off-farm learning.
“If that means they want to use the £1,000 to pay for flights to go to New Zealand for a few weeks, then they can. It is all about keeping staff interested and keen to work.”
Case study: Patrick Morris-Eyton
Since building a new dairy in 2019 and moving to three-times-a-day milking, Cumbria farmer Patrick Morris-Eyton has implemented shift work to afford his staff a better work-life balance, without hindering the productivity of the business.
“After five months in the new rotary parlour, we moved to three-times-a-day milking – at 5am, 1pm and 9pm,” says Mr Morris-Eyton.
“The daytime team is made up of six full-time staff, and we discussed with them how they wanted to work.
“They said they would prefer to do the two daytime milkings, finishing at 4pm. We then bring in part-time night milkers, who do a 9pm-11pm shift.”
The full-time team works Monday-Friday and then does alternate mornings at the weekend – with the night staff filling in the gaps and covering if anyone is sick or on holiday.
“Being flexible is key, but so is treating staff with respect. I want a better quality of life and I expect to have to afford them that, too,” he says.
“The team know what they are doing and make plans between themselves regarding day-to-day jobs, with me just chipping in when I need certain things prioritising.
“It works brilliantly for us, and everyone seems to enjoy working here, which is the main thing.”