‘Cliff-edge’ labour challenge on dairy farms exposed in new Dairy-Tech survey

A possible ‘cliff edge’ shortage of labour for UK dairy farms of all sizes is predicted, with a new survey commissioned for RABDF’s Dairy-Tech event suggesting over a third of the UK’s milk is produced on farms that employ foreign staff, almost all of whom could move or return to EU countries post-Brexit.

This latest survey of over 1,000 UK dairy farms, sponsored by Kite Consulting and carried out by Ian Potter Marketing Services in the last quarter of 2017, also indicated that more than half of dairy farmers are experiencing difficulty at some level with recruiting staff – a quarter to a significant or intense degree.

The dairy farms surveyed produce over 2.23 billion litres of milk – 15% of the UK’s overall annual volume – and have between them nearly 270,000 cows. While a total of 11% of employees were non-UK nationals (521 from 4,635 total employees including family labour), almost 17% of dairy businesses have foreign workers within their workforce. More than half of these non-UK workers are in skilled positions of herdsmen or herd managers.

Any shortage of labour from overseas following Brexit would also affect all sizes of farm. While larger farms would be more impacted, the survey indicates 40% of farms with a total of five employees or fewer (171) currently rely on at least one non-UK worker in their team; all but eight of these in the sample experienced difficulties with recruitment.

However, the reliance on non-UK labour varies across the UK. The highest was in the South East of England, where overseas workers formed 22% of the labour employed on the farms surveyed. The lowest was in the North East and East Midlands, at 1% and 3% respectively. The big milk fields of the South West, North West and Scotland were relatively similar at between 10% and 13%, with Welsh repondents relying slightly more on non-UK labour at 16%. However, it must be cautioned that some of the sample sizes are small, reflecting the regions with lower numbers of milk producers.

Region Number of farms surveyed with labour Total workers Total non-UK workers % non-UK workers
Scotland 108 500 66 13
Northern Ireland 38 90 5 6
North West 178 854 89 10
North East 76 337 5 1
West Midlands 107 437 39 9
East Midlands 54 243 7 3
East Anglia 9 55 7 13
Wales 137 567 91 16
South West 258 1197 152 13
South East 41 205 46 22
Not specified 12 150 14 9
Total 1018 4635 521 Average 11.2%


Commenting on the survey, John Allen, managing partner of Kite Consulting, said: “Labour issues have shot to the top of the list of challenges for many dairy farms after the Brexit referendum.

“Clearly a very significant proportion of our milk is dependent on foreign workers, and over a quarter of farmers say they have significant or intense problems recruiting. It is already one of the key limiting factors to growth, and to the effective operation of dairy farms.

The ready and steady supply of skilled, dedicated foreign workers is critical to the success of the sector, and to its long-term prosperity.”

Matt Knight, managing director of RABDF, said the survey highlighted the urgent need for government and industry to work together urgently to avoid a possible ‘cliff-edge’ shortage of labour in the near future.

“Government needs to first of all recognise the very specific needs of the UK dairy farming sector for permanent year-round semi-skilled and skilled labour. Furthermore, those roles are not going to be filled from the domestic workforce in the near future – a survey of the general public we conducted last year showed only 4% were willing to consider the type of job roles found on a dairy farm.

“But we as a dairy industry also need to take collective and cohesive action to improve the image of dairy farming and the attractiveness of the sector as a career option to the domestic workforce.

“Adopting a positive attitude and changing the message from problems to opportunities would help, potentially using advocates who have forged a successful career in the sector.”

The survey will be discussed further on the Dairy Hub at Dairy-Tech at 9:45 by Kite Consulting’s Edward Lott and RABDF’s Tim Brigstocke.

Dairy-Tech will house the latest innovation, technology and concepts available to the industry. Over 40 new products are being showcased and there will be two hubs packed with specialist speakers covering a whole host of key topics and subjects relevant to the sector. There will also be a number of demonstrations taking place, including automation, drones and hoof trimming.

Tickets are free for RABDF members, £17 in advance and £20 on the gate. Further information online at www.dairy-tech.uk or call 02476 639317.


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About The Author

John Swire - Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.