STARTING A CAREER IN DAIRY FARMING


Dairying isn’t for the work-shy. The hours are often long with weekend work too. Work is never cancelled due to weather or holidays and working conditions can be dusty, dirty, wet, smelly and noisy. But it’s rewarding, there’s high demand for workers and it’s a career that offers plenty of opportunities for the right person. So what opportunities are out there and how can you get started on a dairying career pathway? 

What kinds of jobs are there?

Dairy farmers can work for themselves or as permanent or contract staff members on someone else’s farm, or on a profit-sharing contract that includes part-ownership. Most start as workers or assistants and progress into other roles. Some eventually buy and run their own farms.

Dairy farm assistant opportunities are being created all the time thanks to the increasing size and number of dairy farms in NZ. If you have a can-do attitude and willingness to learn, you can often be trained on the job even if you have no prior experience.

Management opportunities are a more modern career path. The corporatisation of dairy farms means people are finding work in hands-off farm management roles including operation managers, business managers, and farm supervisors.

Contract milkers don’t own the cows but do pay part of the farm costs; their reward is a set amount per kilogram of milk solids.

Farm managers are responsible for the financial and physical performance of the farm in consultation with the owner.

Herd managers look after the cows.

Operations managers are responsible for meeting farm owners' business goals and other farm management functions such as ensuring farms meet resource requirements.

Sharemilkers either milk someone else’s herd for a cut of the profits or have their own cows but use someone else’s land to keep and milk them on in return for a profit share.

What’s the pay like?

According to Careers.govt.nz, pay in the industry varies depending on experience, responsibilities and the farm’s profitability. On average, a dairy farmer in charge of a herd or running a farm can expect to earn $46-53K pa. Experienced dairy farm managers and owners typically earn $67-71K. In the beginning though, as an assistant, the wages aren’t high but they’re enough to live on.

How do you get started in dairy?

You’ll need a couple of basic things:

  • A car license. It’s also useful (but not essential) to have a motorcycle and heavy vehicle license too.
  • A minimum of three years of secondary education is recommended. Useful subjects to take include agricultural and horticultural science, math, science, biology, digital technology and accounting.

The personal attributes a dairy farmer needs include:

  • Being physically fit
  • Patience and adaptability
  • Practical thinking skills and the ability to show initiative and make decisions
  • Ability to follow a routine
  • Good time management and organisational skills
  • Communicating well

Officially, 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.

Where to get training/courses?

A quick Internet search will turn up a number of tertiary institutions offering a wide variety of qualifications and courses in agriculture but the two most reputable and specialised in this area are Lincoln University in the South Island and Massey University in the North Island. Massey University offers a Master of Dairy Science and Technology, while Lincoln facilitates a number of Bachelor and Postgraduate degrees in Agriculture and Agricultural Science.

Other institutions’ courses are great to get started as they often offer an overview and taster of the industry. They’re all different so do your research and compare one with another checking how long it runs for, the cost, the qualifications you end up with and how much on-farm practical work is included.

A very specialised and reputable provider of dairy farming education and training is Primary ITO. They offer qualifications and short courses designed for those wanting to start out in dairy, farm assistants and herd managers right through to farm managers and business/operations managers. So you can get started now then go back for more training to progress later on. The variety of subjects you can up-skill include feeding, breeding, animal health, milk harvesting, safety, vehicles and machinery, staff management and agribusiness management just to name a few.