The “dire state” of the labour situation on UK dairy farms has been highlighted by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) in its latest submission of evidence to the Migration Advisory Council (MAC).

The submission of evidence was compiled following feedback from a focus group of farmers.

According to the charity for UK milk producers, 87% of the 46 producers who took part in their focus group detailed that recruitment had become harder in the last five years.

According to RABDF 59% also said they had considered getting out of dairying due to the labour shortage and 92% said the lack of labour in the industry worried them.

The RABDF said the feedback from its group “mirrors worrying figures” recently published by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) which suggested that 380 dairy producers left the industry in the past year.

According to the RABDF’s focus group participants many had already made changes on their farm in response to a labour shortage, with 21% reducing stock numbers and 13% cutting the number of milkings.

RABDF chair Di Wastenage said: “The exodus of dairy farmers is a worrying trend, and sadly, a lack of labour has a big part to play in that.  

“Many farmers are at a crossroads with declining support, and for them to plan and invest for a sustainable future, they must have confidence that both skilled and permanent labour will be available.” 

Foreign workers

The focus group also highlighted the importance of foreign workers in fulfilling the job gaps in the short term.

Almost half said they employed foreign workers because they could not recruit domestic workers.

Antisocial working hours and not enough people interested in the industry were the main reasons they gave for not being able to recruit, the RABDF said.

According to the focus group 40% also said unsociable working hours were the main reasons for staff leaving.  

The RABDF said it believes access to foreign labour is something the dairy industry still needs in the short term. In its latest submission to the MAC Shortage Occupation List Review the RABDF presented outlined their latest findings.

“We hope the MAC will listen to our concerns and include dairy technicians on their Shortage Occupation List (SOL).

“The government can further support this by reviewing the ‘blockers’ they have created to employ and retain staff, such as the lack of rural housing for farmers, especially within designated areas such as the AONB and National Parks,” Wastenage said.

Labour shortage

She also believes that the dairy industry must lead and create a strategy to help itself, and that the RABDF has already put focus on this by hosting a labour roundtable discussion earlier this month.

“In the medium to long term, we must look at all the options to ensure a pipeline of employees enters the industry,” she said.

“This includes better education in schools, brand building, skills development, and attracting employees from outside the industry and diverse backgrounds.

“It also needs dairy farmers to take ownership of the issue on their farms and provide the right environment to value and retain employees.” 

The RABDF said it is keen to maintain the momentum of the roundtable discussion and it is now focused on identifying the key players needed in a dairy labour stakeholder group.