Dairy Farmer - Job opportunities Alternative titles
Kaiahuwhenua Miraka Kau
Dairy farmers feed, care for, and milk herds of cows on farms. They aim to get the cows to produce as much high quality milk as possible, cost-effectively.
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Pay for dairy farmers or managers varies depending on experience and responsibilities, and the profitability of their farms.
- Assistant herd managers earn an average of $44,800 a year.
- Average pay for herd managers is $51,000.
- Dairy farm managers earn an average of $63,000.
- Operations managers in charge of large or multiple dairy farms earn an average of $71,000.
Sharemilkers' and farm owners' pay
The earning potential of sharemilkers (who are considered herd owners and supply a proportion of the herd or equipment in exchange for an agreed percentage of milk company payouts), and managers (who enjoy profit-sharing arrangements with farm owners) can be high, but may fluctuate from year to year.
The amount they earn depends on how much milk their cows produce, and milk company payouts, which vary depending on global market conditions.
Dairy farm managers are often supplied with free or subsidised accommodation, power and telephone, some or all meals, and sometimes farm-killed meat. The monetary value of these extra benefits can be significant, with the average about $4,000 a year, according to Federated Farmers.
Source: Federated Farmers/Rabobank, 'Farm Employee Remuneration Survey', 2014.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the figures and diagrams in our job information)
What you will do
Most dairy farmers milk cows twice a day – once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Some dairy farmers milk seasonally and others milk all year round. Dairy farmers may do some or all of the following:
- milk the cows using milking machinery
- wash out pipes with water and detergent and clean the yard after milking
- plan and manage the amount and type of food the cows eat, which can include purchasing feed supplements
- manage the health, breeding and mating of the herd
- manage calving and raise calves
- carry out general maintenance such as fencing and spraying weeds around the farm
- keep financial and farming records, and organise the farm business plan
- maintain equipment and farm vehicles, such as farm bikes and tractors
- employ and train people to work on the farm and/or manage staff who look after administrative duties on the farm such as organising training and rosters
- interact with vets, farm advisors and other contractors to ensure efficient running of the farm
- develop working practices to support a sustainable dairy farm
- keep up to date with, and use new farm technology to help grow the business.
Skills and knowledge
Dairy farmers need to have:
- good animal-handling skills to ensure cows, calves and bulls are healthy and productive
- an understanding of animal welfare, including knowing how to treat common animal health issues
- an understanding of pasture management practices to ensure production is maximised
- knowledge of the milk harvesting process
- an awareness of milk company standards and safe practices on the farm
- ability to drive vehicles and operate farm machinery
- mechanical knowledge to fix machinery and complete regular maintenance
- knowledge of accounting and how to run a business
- an understanding of sustainable environmental management practices such as safe effluent disposal
- usually start milking early in the morning, but get time off in the day; may work long hours during peak seasons, and often work six days a week
- work on farms and inside milking sheds
- work outside in all weather conditions, and may work in dusty, dirty, wet, and noisy locations
- may visit other farms or attend agricultural field days, and sometimes travel overseas to learn about other farming methods.
What's the job really like?
Adam Waite - Dairy Farmer
Variety and working outdoors make the job enjoyable
Southlander Adam Waite says the outdoor lifestyle is what attracted him to dairy farming.
That, and the variety of the work. "We're doing a lot of farm maintenance at the moment, fixing fences and gates, and trying to catch up on weed spraying. There are calves to feed, and we start weaning them in a few weeks. Artificial insemination of the cows starts soon and in summer there will be grass to cut for baleage. Then there are the everyday jobs such as milking and shifting the cows to fresh paddocks.
"But we don't get too stressed about jobs. If we get sick of doing one thing, we'll just go and find something else to do, or if we don't get something finished one day, there's always tomorrow."
Knowing how to handle stock is key
Of all the skills dairy farmers need to do their work, Adam says the most important is stock-handling - knowing how to move and work with the cows without getting them too stressed. "You need to have a passion for animals, too. There is a lot to keep an eye on, but if you have good stock skills, then you learn to read the animals, and know when something is wrong."
- Working with animals, especially watching them grow from calves to cows.
- Working outdoors
- Driving motorbikes, tractors and machinery
- Interaction with vets and contractors.
- Bad weather such as foods, snow and drought
- Machinery breakdowns
- Being flicked by cows' tails when milking
- Long hours during calving, and weekend work.
Livia finds out what it's like milking cows for a living - 6.21 mins. (Video courtesy of AgITO)
Clinton: We flew Livia from Auckland to Christchurch. From the airport it’s a 50-minute drive south to Rakaia Island, home to one of New Zealand’s largest family-owned dairy farms. Here, 5,000 cows are milked daily. Of the 23 staff, 14 are working for their National Certificate in Agriculture. Assistant operations manager, Johan Geertz will be mentoring Livia. So what qualities does he look for in his trainees?
Johan: Passion towards the outdoor life, animals in general, it doesn’t have to specifically be cows, but obviously if you get to like cows over time.
Livia: Well it’s 5.30 in the morning at the moment, it's freezing. Had a pretty good night's sleep. It seems like it’s going to be a very long day at the moment. But I’m ready to milk some cows so off we go.
Clinton: Trainee Steve Jesen – known to his workmates as Hooley, is one of the first in the shed and begins the milking process.
Livia: Hi I’m Livia.
Hooley: Morning Livia, I’m Hooley. You want to come and milk with us this morning?
Livia: Yeah sure.
Hooley: Brilliant. OK, roll up your sleeves, grab an apron, and let’s get dirty eh?
Hooley: Right, first things first, we’ve got to check the cow, we’ve got to check for mastitis. Pull the teat from the top, work your way down. Check the left side and do the same on both front teats, both left-side teats, and then we cup them on.
Johan: What you’d learn in the apprenticeship would really be the basics of dairy farming, how to milk cows, looking after animals in general.
Livia: How hard are you finding this apprenticeship?
Hooley: It’s good. It has its ups and downs.We have really dodgy weather, cold morning starts but the whole idea of being outside every day, working with the cows, and just communicating with other people, it’s really good.
Clinton: There’s more to the job than most people realise.
Johan: OK, so what we’re doing here just after the cows have finished milking, we’re just spraying them with the sanitiser, just spraying the teats with the sanitiser. And this just ensures to stop any bugs entering the cow’s udder and causing infection.
Clinton: Dairy farming is one of New Zealand’s’ largest industries. Technology and equipment is constantly advancing with the aim to assist farmers in providing a top quality product. This makes it a dynamic and exciting industry as it's always changing and progressing.
Livia: I thought milking would be quite hard, but it’s actually quite easy. You get the hang of it after a while. It takes a bit of time to get used to it but after you get it, it’s really easy.
Clinton: The rest of the day is spent working on jobs to be done around the farm. For the trainees, this practical work experience goes towards acquiring units for their National Certificate in Agriculture. Andrew Shepherd is an Agriculture Industry Training Organisation adviser. He visits the farm regularly to assist with training, and provides guidance and support.
Andrew: So for someone like Livia coming into the industry brand new, then I come out on the farm and visit the trainee and the farmer and we encourage Livia to do some education, some training with us, so she’s getting a qualification while she’s working on the job.
Clinton: Practical skills are assessed by a workplace assessor, normally the employer and in this case, Johan.
Andrew: Because part of the training is practical, then it's very relevant to the farmer – the employer – and what they’re doing on the farm.
Clinton: Livia’s practical skills are now put to the test with a loader wagon.
Johan: There’s absolutely no reason why females can’t do the same job as males in this industry. There is a huge misconception that it is a male-only industry, which is definitely wrong in every aspect.
Johan: And then go back. And that’s it.
Livia: This is the first time I’ve ever driven a tractor. I’m finding it really fun.
Clinton: The Modern Apprenticeship is set up for students aged between 16 and 21 and who are committed to completing their studies to Level 4 of the apprenticeship. This usually takes three to four years.
Andrew: At Level 2 though, it’s more focused on the nuts and bolts, the basics of getting the job done, milking the cows, making sure the milk is a good quality, cleanliness around the shed, safety on the farm, bike safety, tractor safety, fencing safety, so it’s all very relevant to the level that you’re at. Once you get up to Level 3 and 4, then you’re starting to talk more management skills, feed budgeting, animal health, identifying diseases, that sort of thing.
Clinton: As well as the practical on-job training there is theory off-job training. Rakaia Farm facilitate classes every fortnight. Depending on what level you are studying determines how much study is required. The farm also provides meals for their trainees throughout the week.
Johan: Generally with dairy farming, you don’t have to pay for accommodation, that’s all supplied. You have no travel costs, and from there, you can start off around the $25,000 to $30,000 mark, and go as high as you want really.
Livia: Well it’s the end of the day now, as you can see, it’s night, it’s been a very long day but I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. Some parts were quite hard, challenging, but in the end it was really worth it. Next year, I’m seriously going to go home and think about how I can make this happen.
Clinton: National Certificate in Agriculture courses are offered at several levels. The work you train for will dictate which level of the certificate you need to achieve. Level 2 is an introduction to the industry, takes one year to complete and requires 18 hours of off-farm theory-based training.
The outlook for farming is good and the numbers employed are expected to rise. Farming is becoming more specialised to cater for niche market demands, and all farmers now have to adjust farming styles to maximise returns.
There are no specific entry requirements for dairy farmers, but training will help you with your career. A relevant training course in agriculture, dairy farming, agribusiness, or farm management is recommended. Most dairy farmers offer their employees training through the Primary Industry Training Organisation (Primary ITO), which offer apprenticeships.
It is useful to have a motorcycle and heavy vehicle driver's licence.
- Primary ITO website - information on dairy industry training
- Dairy NZ website - information about scholarships
At least three years of secondary school education is recommended, and useful subjects include agriculture, maths, accounting, biology or science, and computers.
Dairy farmers need to be:
- patient, adaptable and practical
- motivated and able to follow a routine
- able to show initiative and make decisions
- well organised, goal focussed and forward thinking
- able to work well independently, and as part of a team
- good at communicating with, and managing people.
Useful experience for dairy farmers includes:
- any farm work
- working with animals
- working in mechanical, maintenance and building industries
- experience in rural professional roles such as fertiliser representative, banker or stock agent selling cattle or sheep
- joining a young farmers club.
Dairy farmers need to be fit, with good stamina, as the job can be physically demanding.
View information on courses in the course database
Find out more about training
- Primary Industry Training Organisation
- 0800 208020 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.primaryito.ac.nz
What are the chances of getting a job?
Because of high demand for people with dairy farming skills, dairy farm manager, herd manager, and dairy farm assistant roles appear on Immigration New Zealand's immediate skill shortage list. This means the Government is actively encouraging people skilled in these roles to come and work in New Zealand.
Managing farms is often a stepping stone to dairy farm ownership, and vacancies for managers arise frequently as people progress, move between farms, or retire.
New farming opportunities
Nationally, New Zealand is experiencing a trend of increasing herd numbers with an average herd size of 413 cows, compared to 285 cows 10 years ago. This reflects a trend towards corporatisation of dairy farms, which is creating new hands-off farm management roles; including, operation managers, business managers, and farm supervisors. These roles are often responsible for a number of farms. The increasing specialisation of roles will require an up-skilled workforce and greater demand for people with management skills.
Increasing opportunities to get on the dairy farm ladder
The increasing size of dairy farms is creating more opportunities for dairy farm assistants, and most dairy farmers are willing to train people with little prior experience as long as they have a can-do attitude and willingness to learn.
A variety of working arrangements for dairy farmers
Dairy farmers may work for themselves, as permanent staff members, or on a range of profit-sharing contracts, which includes part-ownership. Farms range in size from small units supporting one or two workers, to large units with 10 staff or more.
A growing number of large farming property-companies own many dairy farms, and employ managers and other staff to run them.
- Camilleri, C, product manager, Dairy NZ, Careers New Zealand interview, February 2015.
- Federated Farmers/Rabobank Farm Employee Remuneration Survey', June 2014, (www.fedfarm.org.nz).
- Immigration New Zealand, 'Immediate Skill Shortage List', accessed February 2015, (www.immigration.govt.nz).
- Ministry for Primary Industries, 'People Powered', June 2014 (www.mpi.govt.nz).
- Statistics New Zealand, ‘Census of Population and Dwellings’, 2014 (www.stats.govt.nz).
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Other vacancy websites
- Farm Source Jobs - Search for dairy farm jobs
- Frenz Recruitment - Browse farm jobs. Immigration advice also available
- Federated Farmers Rural Jobs - Browse dairy farm vacancies
- Fegan and Co - Browse job vacancies
- Marcat - Employment agency specialising in dairy farm jobs
- Agricultural Recruitment (Farm Me) - Search for casual and permanent dairy farm jobs
- Fonterra - Vacancies for New Zealand's largest dairy company
- Job vacancy and recruitment websites
Progression and specialisations
Most dairy farmers start as farm workers or assistants, and progress into other roles such as herd manager or sharemilker. Some eventually buy and run their own farms.
During their career, dairy farmers may choose from a variety of profit-sharing and management roles, such as:
- Contract Milker
- Contract milkers pay for a percentage of the farm costs (without owning the cows) and receive a set reward per kilogram of milk solids.
- Dairy Farm Manager
- Dairy farm managers are responsible for the financial and physical performance of the farm in consultation with a farm's owner.
- Dairy Herd Manager
- Herd managers are paid a wage to look after a herd.
- Operations Manager
- Operations managers are responsible for meeting farm owners business goals, and other farm management functions such as ensuring the farm/s meet resource requirements.
- Sharemilkers either milk a dairy farmer's cows for a profit share, or own a herd of cows and milk them on an owner's land for a profit share.
Other employment and profit-sharing arrangements are available in the dairy farming industry. The Go Dairy website has details about all options.
How many people are doing this job?
Job vacancies by region
Updated 25 Feb 2015