Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

It’s academic—Fatigue on the farm

RUPERT TIPPLES on a “decent dairying” project which used a Change Laboratory process to explore ways to reduce fatigue on New Zealand dairy farms.

By 2009 dairy exports reached 26 per cent of total merchandise exports. These exports were produced by a national herd of 4.5 million cows in 11,700 individual herds, and occupied some 30,000 dairy farm staff. However, dairy farmers’ diagnosis of their future staffing had found that dairy farming was not attractive, that hours were long, that staff turnover was high, and recruitment and the retention of employees was problematic.

Further, the accident rate in dairy farming was reported as the third worst in terms of injuries per person employed.

So the industry’s strategy aimed at “talented and skilled people being attracted to, and retained by the industry”, subsequently revised to “…a world-class work environment that attracted, grew and protected people”.

Long hours are nothing new in dairy farming: In 1937-38, 65 per cent of dairy farmers were working an average of 70 hours per week in busy periods, with permanent employees working 65 hours per week. In 2006, dairy farming reported 61 percent working more than 50 hours per week, twice the proportion for all full time workers. The implications for safety and health from long hours and consequent fatigue were reported as a known injury risk factor for those working in agriculture.

Dairy farming cost ACC $24 million in the year to 30 June 2010. Part of the problem was the growth in the industry. The number of employees has climbed, from around 10,000 in 1999 to just over 22,000 at the end of 2012. Part of this growth was from migrants doing dairy farm work on limited term visas, which by 2012/13 had settled at some 2130 dairy workers. There was a positive correlation between increasing herd size and an increasing number of ACC claims. Claims tended to peak in spring at calving, then decline and level off in summer, with the lowest levels being in June in the “dried-off” season. In terms of age, claims peaked for the 20-24 group, when there was perhaps a mismatch of confidence and maturity, and for the 35-39 group, who were perhaps stressed/tired share milkers, or managers, or migrant dairy employees mostly of this age.


Farmers are very resistant to health and safety initiatives they have not been party to. Addressing issues of fatigue in dairying became part of DairyNZ’s Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing programme (2010-2017). For our research we chose an inter-disciplinary expansive learning approach based on a Finnish “change laboratory” model suited to a range of complex interacting factors and an industry need for a change of culture, which was already proven to work in New Zealand1.

As per Figure 1, that involved working systematically in the change labs through Stages 1-4, and not short circuiting the procedure in typical pragmatic Kiwi fashion by jumping directly from Stage 1 to Stage 4.

Figure 1:   Managing change using an expansive learning cycle

The research process hinged on farmers and related personnel in the change labs deciding what the underlying systems issues about fatigue were and then developing and implementing their own industry-based solutions. The change lab process is to motivate the collective generation of novel solutions to intractable barriers to altered behaviours. The researchers therefore have a dual focus: the outputs, and generating the collective will to act in the participants. Both continued to be our focus.

The participants came from those who were typical of Canterbury dairying, both on-farm and off-farm. These participants were the active operatives in the expansive learning process. The research team were the facilitators of the process, providing new resources and helping to focus discussions. The key unit of analysis was the individual dairy farming activity, set in the farming system. The research process incorporated three phases:

Phase 1: Fieldwork with a background review of socio-cultural historical data on activities that made up the Canterbury dairying system, both on- and off-farm (Cultural Historical Activity Theory, CHAT).

Phase 2: Ten change laboratories to identify opportunities for long-term systemic change; and re-frame mental models, policies, practical tools (Developmental Work Research, DWR).

Phase 3: Trials to build commitment and ways to pass new ideas to the dairy and rural health industries.


WEB Research was contracted to carry out the field research and initiate the expansive learning approach advocated2. Our participants were supportive of the process, but it was difficult getting participants together for every change lab in Canterbury.

We visited a range of Canterbury dairy farms during 2011. On-farm, we interviewed dairy farmers, share milkers, farm workers and supervisors; off-farm, we interviewed DairyNZ consulting officers, a local Fonterra manager, a banker, an accountant, a vet, and an irrigation specialist, all with current dairying client bases; and also health professionals.

We heard of over-work, work-related stress, injury, and clinical depression. Throughout we tried to triangulate on- and off-farm data to ensure its validity. Several themes were distilled from the initial enquiries and then fed into the Change Laboratory process as required to stimulate the participants’ discussions:

  • • 
    What motivates dairy farmers, share milkers, herd managers to work 16-19 hour days, from July through December, with no meaningful break?
  • • 
    One answer: young, highly motivated, entrepreneurial men and women are building complex, demanding pathways to find a route to farm ownership.
  • • 
    Taking on large debt creates “a huge amount of pressure”.
  • • 
    Corporate pressure, investors’ expectations moving from “farming animals” to “farming land”; focused on “the bottom dollar”.
  • • 
    With “more cows, more land, more irrigation, more staff”, and “more to do”. Bigger, more diverse workforce eg with ESOL needs.
  • • 
    Long hours, rosters for dairy workers/supervisors to work eg, 11 days on, 3 days off. By day 7 “people start fading”. Impacts quality/productivity of work/staff relationships.
  • • 
    Relationship stresses between dairy farming couples appear inextricably tied up with the business and work practices of dairy farming.
  • • 
    Industry pressure to be highly productive, to manage debt, to be seen to be a “successful operator” leading to negative farmer self-esteem, lowered productivity, and depression.


In their stories the change lab participants mapped farming mental models in this new environment. Direct and indirect experiences of fatigue and stress on Canterbury dairy farms were recorded, and became the foundations for participants’ later design of long-term systems solutions to fatigue/accidents and for changed mental models and practices both on and off-farm.

A socio-cultural historical analysis of dairying suggested that some core cultural values of family farming had been preserved in “farmers” who have created a new, industrialised form of dairying (scale farming). At the same time, these mental models had been shaped by off-farm activities, ranging from the contracting of milk supply to introducing newcomers to the industry. Then participants examined the differing career pathways of those in dairying with the goal of owning a farm; and those who did not have that goal.

In the change lab analysis it was evident that “dairy farmer” and “dairy farming”, as culturally and historically constructed, were altering. The possibility of dairying as a sustainable and endurable way of life had diminished in the face of a focus upon production, science and the use and management of debt finance.

If there had been a time when the farmer and employee could have been said to have had a shared object (endure because you are on the path to ownership – one day you will be like me), then that was no longer the default case. The participants suggested a new shared object between a farmer and an employee – the creation of “Decent dairy farming” and how to create that shared aim (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 What a decent dairy farm does
Good leadership

  • • 
    All staff know targets
  • • 
    All staff “home” at same time - “fairness”

Clarifying expectations

  • • 
    Initial expectations clarified (Good work agreement)
  • • 
    Continuous/ongoing effort to maintain clear/balanced expectations


  • • 
    Employees know when they have done well
  • • 
    Job variety
  • • 
    Flexible rosters
  • • 
    Increased responsibility

The Change Lab cycle was being completed during calving 2013 and ran on into 2014. Unfortunately the implementation process died when DairyNZ cut the project’s funding at the end of May 2014, when implementation of a workable idea was in sight. DairyNZ claimed that it was taking the work back “in house” to strengthen the process, but no evidence has emerged that this is the case. DWR and CHAT did not produce the “instant” results that they wanted – they take time. A change in management personnel led to a loss of confidence in the project.


This fatigue research was funded by dairy farmers as part of DairyNZ’s PGP-funded Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing Programme (2010-2017).


TIPPLES, R., HILL, R., WILSON, K., & GREEENHALGH, J. “Decent dairying” – Findings from a Change Laboratory process to reduce fatigue on New Zealand dairy farms, Extension Farming Systems Journal, 9, no.1, 132-140. 2013.
TIPPLES, RUPERT, HILL, ROBERTA & WILSON, KEN Finnish Developmental Work Research (DWR) – A powerful research paradigm with policy possibilities. 16th Labour Employment and Work Conference, Victoria University of Wellington. 27-28 November 2014.

A full set of references is obtainable from the author:

Rupert Tipples is honorary associate professor in employment relations in the faculty of Agribusiness and Commerce at Lincoln University.

comments powered by Disqus

From Safeguard Magazine

Table of Contents