Comment: Calving is an intense time on farms in terms of the workload and skills required and Covid-19 is making it more difficult to hire experienced workers, writes Federated Farmers Dairy Chairman Chris Lewis.

With the very busy calving season not that far away, dairy farmers need to focus their minds now on the extra workforce gap challenges that the Covid-19 alert levels throw at us.

We understand that the Government and Immigration NZ officials are being inundated with requests for specific information and what each alert level might mean for them.

Federated Farmers has certainly appreciated the Government's positive response to requests from us and DairyNZ, and the decision to extend temporary work visas through to 25 September.

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Dairy farms have this year grappled with all sorts of stress, with floods in Southland and parts of Otago; sustained drought in many other regions; pending Government regulation changes that bring a huge amount of uncertainty and soak time and resources to submit on; a tougher stance by banks on lending in conjunction with Reserve Bank moves; and now Covid-19!

Farmers are used to the highs and lows, but they usually come in ones and twos. Not this season.

And from July 1 we enter our busiest season of calving (which then turns into mating and doesn't really ease off until Christmas).

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Calving is an intense time on farms in terms of workload and skills required. Not only is a full quota of permanent employees needed but also additional casual or fixed term employees.

It is a lot harder to train new staff on farm from July through until October as the risks for people and animal health, safety and welfare are high during this time.

Federated Farmers Dairy Chairman Chris Lewis. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers Dairy Chairman Chris Lewis. Photo / Supplied

Because our sector is currently reliant on temporary migrant labour, we have growing concerns that dairy businesses will have workforce gaps during this critical time. So we need to get a plan in place with some haste.

Employers like myself, who employ up to seven people, need to get our heads around some of the issues facing us.

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Migrants used to jump on the plane and work on our farms. Border closures has stopped that for the foreseeable future.

Existing work visas maybe renewed or not. That's an unknown, especially how high our unemployment rate will go.

One of the steps I must go through when I employ a migrant is to advertise locally and prove there's no local Kiwis available to be employed to work on my farm. That's been the rule for a long time.

But there are still hurdles around the remote location of the job, accommodation available, etc. A two-bedroom house on farm can't accommodate a family of six, for example.

The dairy sector remains committed to employing competent New Zealanders.

We understand with an increasing unemployment rate there will be more suitable New Zealanders available and we welcome this opportunity. But we need to reiterate that it is not possible to take someone on who has not worked in dairy before and throw them into calving; the risks are simply too high for many farms.

What's needed is an early understanding of what an immigration policy will look like over the next six months so we can plan with urgency.

We expect this workforce will need to consist of current New Zealand employees, current migrants with work visas, migrants with work visas which will need to be renewed over the next six months, and New Zealanders who have recently been made unemployed and who are looking for a new challenge.

Federated Farmers expects that the best answer will be a reduced but phased reliance on migrant workers to enable upskilling of New Zealanders to ensure we maintain health, safety and animal welfare standards.

A little disclaimer, when I wrote this it was accurate on the day, but with the Covid-19 situation the advice can change. Please go to Federated Farmers' website for the latest information.

Keep safe everyone.