May 16, 2018 - How Many Cows Can One Person Sustainably Manage?



Wednesday, May 16, 2018 - With increasing cow numbers it is essential that workloads are sustainable to ensure a resilient farm business into the future, according to Teagasc, the state agency responsible for agri-food related research, advisory, and education in Ireland.

It says that, additionally, a growing industry means there is a need to attract people to the industry, and to achieve this dairy farming must be an enjoyable and rewarding career that offers a good work/ life balance comparable with other careers.

To ensure a good work/life balance, it is essential that farmers focus on adopting labour efficient farm systems and by evaluating, changing or adopting current work practices if necessary.

But, when discussing labour efficiency, a question is often asked: how many cows can one person manage?

At its recent dairy open day at Ballyhaise in Ireland, Teagasc staff said that the first point to make is there should be no such thing as a one-person farm.

Every person needs a break from work and so every dairy farm business should have people available to offer the farmer time away from the farm, regardless of scale, it advises. 

This may be family members or paid relief help, but cows per person are influenced by two things:

How many hours of work does each cow require during the year?

How many hours is the person willing to work?

Based on the national average herd size (75 cows in 2016), average labour efficiency there nationally is estimated to be 40 hours per cow per year.

This includes the workload associated with rearing replacement heifers for the farm, according to Teagasc. It says that farms operating very labour efficient systems are achieving efficiency levels of <20 hours per cow per year by having labour efficient facilities and work practices, contract rearing heifers and contracting out machinery work.

The other key variable is: how many hours is a person willing to work? Achieving high levels of labour efficiency by simply working longer hours is unsustainable. The farm will look impressive using the key performance indicator of cows per person, but chances are that profit is not being maximised as people are too busy working, and management decisions suffer.

Combining current national average levels of labour efficiency with maintaining a reasonable working week of 50 hours per week over 48 weeks would mean that one person can effectively manage 60 cows.

DOC’S COMMENT: I remember in the 1970’s and 80’s — before the upsurge to mega-dairies — 40 to 50 cows was considered a goodly number for one family to manage.  The ‘family’ consisted of the husband and wife, an occasional hired hand for seasonal work such as haying, and any children who worked on the farm before they left the drudgery of the dairy farm for greener pastures.  A lot has changed since then, but I’m betting if you divided the number of cows in a mega-dairy by the number of families involved in the total operation, you would end up with a figure very close to 50.

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