Dairy Labor Survey Shows Trends, Vulnerabilities

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Raising dairy animals and producing milk is a team effort, and many dairy owners now find themselves spending more time managing people than cows. The Northern New York Agricultural Development Program recently released the results of a survey of 32 dairy farms examining regional dairy labor trends. 

Herd size of the farms surveyed ranged from less than 200 cows to more than 3,000, with the most common herd size being 1,800-3,000 cows (25.61% of farms surveyed). Collectively, the number of employees on all farms surveyed totaled 593.

Although the survey studied northern New York dairies only, the labor issues encountered there are not unique. For example, the study authors cited a small labor pool due to low population density in the area, along with competition with other industries, as two of the major challenges for dairy owners. 

Among the most compelling findings in the complete study report are:

  • More than one-third of employees (35%) on farms surveyed had worked there for 5 to 10 years, indicating significant loyalty.
  • Housing was the most widely offered benefit to workers at 81.48%, followed by health insurance (62.96%) and retirement pay (62.96%). 
  • The average salary of farms that paid salaries was $40,500. The average wage for hourly workers was $13.28, and the average starting hourly wage was $11.54. (Minimum wage laws in New York changed twice during the survey period, increasing from $9.70 to $10.40 on 12/31/17, and from $10.40 to $11.10 on 12/31/19).
  • Most of the labor was supplied by local residents (47.48%), followed by Hispanic (22.94%); owners (21.1%) and family/non-owners (8.52%). 
  • Only about half (52%) of dairy owners reported having formal training in managing people.
  • Workers put in long hours, with more than 40% (258) working 60-70 hours per week, and the most common shift length being 12 hours. 
  • Nearly half of the farms (41.94%) were providing informal training only in the form of shadowing other employees. Only 25.81% provided formal training with an employee handbook, while 29.03% provided formal training with no handbook.
  • Only 16.13% of farms provided formal performance reviews, and the majority of all farms (45.16%) reported giving raises informally. Of the farms that only reviewed employees informally, 57% reported granting raises based on performance. 

Cornell University Cooperative Extension Farm Business Management Specialist and project co-leader Kelsey O'Shea said the last three items are particularly concerning. “This indicates that if overtime laws are passed for agricultural businesses, dairy farmers will have to change their labor scheduling significantly to avoid changes in total labor costs.” 

O’Shea added that more resources for farm owners to provide further formal training to their employees are needed to support farm success. “The overlap was 57% of respondents that only conducted informal reviews also have raises based on performance.” She indicated this is a risky proposition, given that “employees [could] perceive raises as being awarded randomly because there is no written documentation of a performance review.” 

 
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