Fonterra dairy farmers are expected to pump $12 billion into the New Zealand economy including $1b to the Bay of Plenty, but the industry is still short of up to 4000 workers.
That means some farmers are working more than 16 hours a day as calving began, which is ''unsustainable'' and is sparking fears for their wellbeing.
A joint survey by Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers this year, which received 1150 responses, showed 49 per cent of farms at the time were short-staffed while another 46 per cent of those vacancies went unfilled for more than three months.
Ōpōtiki dairy farmer Zac Brown said he was ''struggling big time to find skilled workers'' and he still had a farm manager's job up for grabs.
Brown had filled a 2IC job but said some of those applicants had only been in the industry for one year.
''I set tasks for the interviews and they were well below the skills required for a 2IC. You can't chuck someone in that hasn't seen a cow before and expect them to be a 2IC as you are just setting them up to fail.''
Brown said attracting a dairy manager was harder because moving to Ōpōtiki didn't appeal.
So now Brown's workload had increased from operations manager over three farms to managing the farm that needed a new manager as well.
''Now I'm doing 16 hours a day minimum. If you have any problems when you have to calve cows in the middle of the night you can work up to 18 or 19 hours a day at the moment.''
''It's not sustainable.''
Mark Gariano from CC Recruitment said the drive to find dairy workers was ''almost one hundred per cent worse than last year''.
An employer in Whakatāne had a job that had been vacant for nearly 12 months.
''We can't help them because we can't get anyone in from overseas and trying to get someone in New Zealand was unsuccessful.''
There were still vacancies in the Bay of Plenty, he said.
Minister for Agriculture Damien O'Connor said he acknowledged there were legitimate concerns about pressures that farmers were experiencing, particularly staff shortages.
The sector and successive governments have been well aware of the skills shortages in the dairy industry, he said.
''This is a long term challenge that requires long term solutions. Though there's a place for immigrants, we have to look at how we can develop not only the skills of Kiwis but the conditions that make someone say, 'That's the career for me'.''
The Ministry for Primary Industries was working with the sector on a range of initiatives, including those targeted at attracting new people to the dairy sector and retaining jobs.
Meanwhile, border restrictions remain part of the Government's strategy to protect New Zealand from Covid-19.
DairyNZ responsible dairy general manager Jenny Cameron said it estimated the current labour shortage for the dairy sector was 2000 to 4000 people this year.
''We know from daily conversations with farmers that many are facing workforce shortages and are struggling to get the people they need to work on farm, and that is particularly acute during calving.''
DairyNZ had been in regular discussions with the Government and said the 200 border class exceptions and recent visa extensions were a "step in the right direction" but not enough to address the long-term workforce challenges on-farm.
These challenges had been exacerbated by current border restrictions and the difficulty of getting migrant workers into the country.
''We know around 3000 New Zealanders enter dairy farming each year, including school leavers and career changers, joining a total workforce of 40,000 on-farm.''
Federated Farmers board member and spokesman for employment and immigration Chris Lewis said last year farmers got away with the labour shortage.
They took a few shortcuts and were smart but ''you can't do that forever because it catches up to you''.
''Farmers are grumpy because they are under massive pressure and it's not good. I'm hearing it all the time I get 1000 emails a week. When you get one or two it's okay but when you hear week in week out and month in month out, it's a big problem.''
Commodity prices are high and farmers should be happy but it's just the stress, he said.
''If you are in a shop you can lose a customer so be it, but you can't lose a cow.''
''At the moment I'm under the pump trust me.''
Federated Farmers Rotorua/Taupo provincial president Colin Guyton said the industry had tried to make dairy farming more attractive with higher wages and better conditions but getting the right Kiwis was tough.
Farmers were putting in long days to make up for the shortfall.
''I'm technically retired and so is my wife but because my son is running the place we are out there doing a bit of hard graft.''
Ministry for Social Development Industry Partnerships director Amanda Nicolle said it had partnered with Federated Farmers through its Skills for Industry programme to encourage members to employ New Zealanders receiving a benefit.
The ministry also supported DairyNZ's 'GoDairy' initiative and MSD has an agri-training course.
''Across all of these initiatives, we have placed 552 clients into agricultural jobs since May 2020. We also have contracts in place with Federated Farmers to help another 100 people into agricultural work through our Skills for Industry programme over the 2021-22 financial year.''
But she admitted not all jobseekers were suitable for this type of work.
''It's a physical job with at times long hours, and due to a number of reasons – ill health, childcare, and accommodation availability – it may not work for all.''
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand chief executive Shaun Robinson said work stress consistently ranks in the top three concerns in research about workplace mental health.
''Working 16 hour days for a prolonged period is definitely unsustainable and will damage people's mental wellbeing. Farmers and farm workers need to plan breaks into their work routine and pace themselves as they head towards busy times like calving.
''You are your biggest asset on the farm and you have to look after yourself.''
Bay of Plenty Rural Support Trust chairman Miles Mander said he was aware of a number of farmers who had struggled to staff their properties adequately.
Calving and the weather added to the stress and he encouraged farmers who were feeling overwhelmed to reach out to its facilitators who were experienced farmers or held roles in the rural industry.
''We are used to dealing with stressful situations and ... we can connect them with others if they need more complex help.''
Fonterra chairman Peter McBride said its farmers would contribute about $12b to the New Zealand economy including $1b to the Bay of Plenty next season.
But the environment had changed a lot over the last 10 years.
In May, he said the co-operative's current structure was put in place when milk supply was growing rapidly in New Zealand. It now needs to be prepared for flat or potentially declining milk supply as a result of climate change impacts, regulatory changes, and alternative land uses.
Fonterra Bay of Plenty regional head Lisa Payne said the vast majority of its products made in the North Island leaves through the Port of Tauranga.
That equated to about 1.4 million metric tonnes every year.
''We export about 95 per cent of our local production to 130 countries.''
Do you need help?
* Bay of Plenty Support Trust 0800 787 254
* Farm Strong farmstrong.co.nz
* Mental Health Foundation mentalhealth.org.nz