July 26, 2008

NZ sheep farmers are weary

55+ and getting weary!

By Clive Dalton

The one great strength the NZ dairy industry has, is the low average age of those actually doing the physical work on farms. Sharemilkers and herd managers are in their 30s and can still run to head off a cow. Farming is a physical job and you have to be fit. At 30 the body stands up to more abuse than when things start to stiffen up when older.

When you look at the average sheep farmer- HE is 55+ years old, and already bits have started to fall off! His mainstay on the farm – Mum, shares his age, and what's worse, the chances are very high that any farm staff are older than both of them.

Years ago, ACC statistics showed that around 40% of sheep farmers had bad backs, and now hips and knees are starting to twinge from the battles of past years. New body parts are expensive.

But where are the boys? Well like good parents they sent the family to boarding schools for their secondary education, which inevitably did a great job. As these young folk grew up, they were home for weekends and holidays around which dagging, crutching and shearing were planned. Now these yunguns have qualified in law and accountancy and coming home to muster and dag sheep is a bit awkward, although they'd probably love to find the time.

They wisely didn't go into agricultural science as there is no career path there any more, not at the price of university education where you need at least two degrees and then no guarantee of a job with a future.

Many sheep farm jobs have to be done in the most un-natural position for the human body – standing upright but bent over looking at a sheep's rear end between your feet. The worst of these is dagging sheep. Shearers don't dag sheep, and now young staff are rebelling wanting more rewarding work.

A shepherd's dream would be no dagging, no drenching and no reason to leave. A sheep farmer's dream would be no dagging, no drenching, staff staying on and reduced costs. More profit would be nice but today's sheep farmers have learned to live with low profits for decades.

It's now a real dilemma. At age 55+ he and Mum are getting tired. The farm goes up in value by millions each year, and the profits go down. It wouldn't be so bad if the workload fell with profits; it doesn't.

Some advisers suggest heavier ewes increasing scanning and lambing percentage is the key to more profit, and fail to see this is madness – and is guaranteed to give more work.

An economist would tell farmers to sell up and get out of this capital rich and cash poor business. But they are dedicated. Dad asks what else could he do, and mum doesn't want to leave her home and garden for the last 30 years to move to town. It's really quite sad – and there's very little they can do other than tighten the belts once again. They've had plenty practice.

Wool is stuffed and nobody has a solution despite the last 30 years of promises. Now it looks as if lamb is stuffed too, and again, nobody seems to have a solution, although talk is cheap.

Today's sheep farmers need an urgent quick-fix. They can't wait for more medium to long-term solutions that never come. They've been listening to those kind or promises from bureaucrats for decades. A solid week's dagging would help the bureaucrats to see what the real problems are in the industry – increasing age, more work and little to show for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment