Written Evidence submitted by The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF)(LS0022)


The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) is the only UK charity focused on practical dairy farming, helping to create a profitable and sustainable sector. 


Labour on dairy farms is something the RABDF is passionate about, working hard to understand the challenges and identify possible solutions to the labour challenges. Since 2014 it has conducted four surveys and submitted various reports to the Government highlighting the labour challenges.  


What is the foreign labour requirement on UK dairy farms? 



Impact of a lack of foreign workers 


What the industry is doing to address the issue


The dairy industry is looking at long-term solutions, including education programmes in schools, working with colleges and universities to promote dairy farming as a career, and working with farmers to look at ways to make working conditions and shift patterns more favourable for the domestic workforce. However, this takes time, which is why we have repeatedly called on the MAC to allow the industry to have access to foreign workers in the short term, but without any resolution from them. Instead, we find they often dismiss our survey findings and do not offer any suggestions on how they would like us to demonstrate the labour shortage on dairy farms. 



As I hope our evidence will highlight, access to foreign labour is vital for the continued function of our industry. There still appears to be confusion between seasonal workers who are critical in some food-producing sectors compared to the skilled/highly skilled permanent needs of dairy farming. Without continued access to this skilled workforce in the short term, significant consequences will be seen on the sector's economic viability.  









Dairy consumption is increasing in the UK (cheese risen by 15.7%, butter 16.1% and yoghurt 4.1% during the pandemic). With demand for dairy products continuing, we must have a solid workforce that can help keep our dairy farms operating and meet the demand.


This extends beyond farms and includes workers in dairy and meat processing plants and the haulage industry- a key element needed for milk collection. 


It is also essential to distinguish dairy workers from 'seasonal' workers in other agricultural sectors. Worryingly, there still appears to be confusion between seasonal workers who are critical in some food-producing sectors compared to the skilled/highly skilled permanent needs of dairy farming. 


Reliance on foreign labour on UK dairy farms


EU labour remains an important source of labour on UK dairy farms, with almost half of dairy farmers (42.1%) completing a recent survey1 employing foreign workers in the last five years. Of those using foreign labour, 74% said they did because they cannot recruit from the UK. 


There is an increasing reliance on foreign workers due to the changing nature of the UK dairy industry. While dairy producer numbers in GB have fallen by 27% between 1996 and 2018 (2.6m cows to 1.9m4), milk output has remained, reaching its highest annual figure of 15 billion litres since 19904. This is because we are seeing herd sizes increase as well as cows producing more milk.


It is these larger, more intensive operators having an increasing reliance on foreign labour. Their dairy operations tend to function 24/7, with employees often working shift patterns. 


Foreign workers are fulfilling these skilled roles due to the unsociable hours and the nature of the work, which are frequently not accepted by our domestic labour force5 but are not uncommon in Eastern Europe.


In a 2021 RABDF survey of those employing foreign labour, 74% said they did because they can't recruit from the UK. Other reasons included their flexibility in working unsociable hours (66%) and having a better work ethic (58.5%), which supports our previous thoughts. 


Our research indicates a poor image of working on dairy farms, with many UK workers simply not liking the thought of some features of dairy farming, the need for flexible hours and working outside. 


Solutions to the labour shortage 


We have conducted extensive research on the use of foreign labour on UK dairy farms over the past seven years. Throughout this time, the image of dairy farming and particularly the long and unsociable working hours, has been raised as the main limiting factor for recruiting from the domestic workforce.  


Already the industry is working on some solutions. However, it is important we still have

access to foreign workers in the short term while some of the medium to long-term solutions to kick in. 


In terms of the number of foreign workers needed, we estimate this to be about 650 foreign dairy workers a year. This is based on 11% of dairy farms in the UK employing foreign workers (figure from 2017 labour survey), workers staying employed for an average of two years1 and there being 12,209 producers in the UK4.

Solutions being worked on include: 














The RABDF is committed to working towards the long-term solutions and educating the next generation starting in primary schools of the varied and rewarding career choice dairy farming offers. 


We hope this information demonstrates the importance of foreign labour on UK dairy farms and in the wider sector. 


For more information on Access to Labour in the UK Dairy Industry including surveys, reports and previous submissions, visit https://www.rabdf.co.uk/labour



1. RABDF survey 2021 

2.       https://www.rabdf.co.uk/latest-news/2021/2/16/consumers-turn-to-dairy-in-covid-crisis-as-retail-sales-boom

3. RABDF survey 2016

4. Uk Dairy Industry Statistic May 2020 file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/SN02721%20(3).pdf 

5. 2017 EU YouGov survey https://www.rabdf.co.uk/labour



October 2021