Kaiahuwhenua Miraka Kau
Dairy farmers feed, care for and milk herds of cows on farms.
Dairy farmers in charge of herds or running a farm usually earn
$46K-$53K per year
Experienced dairy farm managers and dairy farm owners usually earn between
$67K-$71K per year
Source: Federated Farmers/Rabobank, 'Farm Employee Remuneration Survey', 2015/2016.
Pay for dairy farmers and dairy farm managers varies depending on experience and responsibilities, and the profitability of the farm.
- Assistant dairy herd managers usually earn an average of $46,000 a year.
- Dairy herd managers usually earn an average of $53,000.
- Dairy farm managers usually earn an average of $67,000.
- Operations managers in charge of large or multiple dairy farms usually earn an average of $71,000.
Sharemilkers' and farm owners' pay
The earning potential of sharemilkers (who may own herds and supply herds or equipment in exchange for a percentage of milk company payouts), and managers (who enjoy profit-sharing arrangements with farm owners) can be high, but may fluctuate from year to year.
The amount they earn depends on how much milk their cows produce, and milk company payouts, which vary depending on global market conditions.
Dairy farm managers are often supplied with free power, telephone, some or all meals, and sometimes farm-killed meat or milk. The monetary value of these extras can be significant with the average about $5,000 a year, according to Federated Farmers. Accommodation is also available on most farms, sometimes at subsidised rates.
Source: Federated Farmers/Rabobank, ‘Farm Employee Remuneration Survey', 2015/2016.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)
What you will do
Most dairy farmers milk cows twice a day – once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Some dairy farmers milk seasonally and others milk all year round. Dairy farmers may do some or all of the following:
- milk the cows using milking machinery, and wash pipes and clean the yard after milking
- plan and manage the amount and type of food the cows eat, and buy feed supplements
- manage the health, breeding and mating of the herd, and the raising of calves
- carry out general maintenance such as fencing and spraying weeds around the farm
- keep financial and farming records, and organise the farm business plan
- maintain equipment and farm vehicles, such as farm bikes and tractors
- employ and train people to work on the farm
- interact with vets, farm advisers and other contractors to ensure efficient running of the farm
- keep up to date with new farm technology, and ways to make the dairy farm more environmentally sustainable.
Skills and knowledge
Dairy farmers need to have:
- good animal-handling skills to ensure cows, calves and bulls are healthy and productive
- an understanding of animal welfare, including knowing how to treat common animal health issues
- an understanding of pasture management to achieve high quality milk
- knowledge of the milking process
- an awareness of milk company standards and safe practices on the farm
- mechanical ability to drive, operate and maintain farm machinery
- knowledge of accounting and how to run a business
- an understanding of sustainable environmental management practices such as safe waste disposal.
- usually start milking early in the morning, may get time off during the day, then milk again in the afternoon
- may work long hours during peak times, and often work six days a week
- work on farms and inside milking sheds
- work outside in all weather conditions, and may work in dusty, dirty, wet, and noisy locations
- may visit other farms or attend agricultural field days, and sometimes travel overseas to learn about other farming methods.
What's the job really like?
Variety and working outdoors make the job enjoyable
Southlander Adam Waite says the outdoor lifestyle is what attracted him to dairy farming.
That, and the variety of the work. "We're doing a lot of farm maintenance at the moment, fixing fences and gates, and trying to catch up on weed spraying. There are calves to feed, and we start weaning them in a few weeks. Artificial insemination of the cows starts soon and in summer there will be grass to cut for baleage. Then there are the everyday jobs such as milking and moving the cows to fresh paddocks.
"But we don't get too stressed about jobs. If we get sick of doing one thing, we'll just go and find something else to do, or if we don't get something finished one day, there's always tomorrow."
Knowing how to handle stock is key
Of all the skills dairy farmer's need to do their work, Adam says the most important is stock-handling – knowing how to move and work with the cows without getting them too stressed. "You need to have a passion for animals, too. There is a lot to keep an eye on, but if you have good stock skills, then you learn to read the animals, and know when something is wrong."
Dairy farmer video
Matthew and Samantha talk about their passion and plans for their career in dairy farming – 2.05 mins. (Video courtesy of Ministry for Primary Industries)
Probably the best thing about dairying for me and why I chose dairying above anything else is there’s a direct, very achievable pathway through it.
There’s probably 10 or 15 steps there that are all very achievable for someone within 5 to 10 years.
Samantha: I did vet nursing and then from there I studied rural animal vet nursing.
The idea behind it was because this way it helps me understand what’s going on on the farm and I’m a lot more help to Matthew.
I can dag cows and all that kind of stuff, so it just helps us get a bit further ahead and it looks really good on our CV.
Matthew: To be a farmer, I think the most important thing is passion. You’ve got to love it. You don’t have to be born into it, I know quite a few mates who have come out of Auckland who are dairy farmers now and they love it.
It’s just that passion side of things. You’re never going to know unless you try it.
Samantha: I didn’t think I would. I was studying architecture, straightening my hair for milking, all that kind of stuff – and here I am, doing it.
Matthew: You’ll know within a very short period of time whether you want to do it or not.
I know I had found what I wanted to do because I’d probably do it for free. Maybe not quite, but pretty close.
It provides such a great life for us, that I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Samantha: It’s not work either, it’s a lifestyle.
Matthew: As I got into the industry it was still farming, not really considered a business. As I’ve grown into it, it’s a very professional industry now. We record everything now: animal remedies, animal health, when effluent is applied, how it’s applied, where it’s applied.
It’s not good business to have nitrogen or whatever leaching out of the system because we could be utilising that to grow grass.
Samantha: We’re going to get there, we’ll have 2,000 cows one day, we’ll have our own farm one day – even if it’s a small farm, we’ll still have it.
Matthew: Sam wants our own land so she can build her dream house and I can build my dream farm.
There are no specific entry requirements for dairy farmers, but training will help you with your career. A relevant training course in agriculture, dairy farming, agribusiness, or farm management is recommended. Most dairy farmers offer their employees training through the Primary Industry Training Organisation (Primary ITO), which offers apprenticeships.
It is useful to have a motorcycle and heavy vehicle driver's licence.
- Primary ITO website - information on dairy industry training
- Dairy NZ website - information about scholarships
A minimum of three years of secondary education is recommended. Useful subjects include agricultural and horticultural science, maths, accounting, biology, science, and digital technology.
Dairy farmers need to be:
- patient, adaptable and practical
- motivated and able to follow a routine
- able to show initiative and make decisions
- well organised, goal focused and forward thinking
- able to work well independently, and as part of a team
- good at communicating with and managing people.
Useful experience for dairy farmers includes:
- any farm work
- working with animals
- working in mechanical, maintenance or building industries
- professional rural roles such as fertiliser representative, banker or stock agent
- membership of a young farmers' club.
Dairy farmers need to have excellent fitness, with good stamina, as the job can be physically demanding.
Find out more about training
- Primary Industry Training Organisation
- 0800 208020 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.primaryito.ac.nz
What are the chances of getting a job?
Chances of getting a job as a dairy farmer are good because there is high demand for people with dairy farming skills.
Dairy farm manager and dairy farm assistant manager appear on Immigration New Zealand's regional skill shortage list. This means the Government is actively encouraging skilled dairy farmers from overseas to work in New Zealand.
Dairy farm assistant opportunities
The increasing size and number of dairy farms is creating more opportunities for dairy farm assistants. Dairy farmers will often train inexperienced people if they have a can-do attitude and willingness to learn.
Dairy farm managers may go on to own their own farm.
The trend of increasing herd numbers and corporatisation of dairy farms means more opportunities for people with management skills. New hands-off farm management roles include operation managers, business managers and farm supervisors.
Types of working arrangements varied
Dairy farmers may work for themselves, or as permanent staff members, or on a profit-sharing contract that includes part-ownership.
- Camilleri, C, product manager, Dairy NZ, Careers New Zealand interview, February 2015.
- Federated Farmers/Rabobank, 'Farm Employee Remuneration Survey', 2015/2016, (www.fedfarm.org.nz).
- Immigration New Zealand, 'Regional Skill Shortage List', 27 May 2019, (www.immigration.govt.nz).
- Ministry for Primary Industries, 'People Powered', June 2014, (www.mpi.govt.nz).
- Statistics New Zealand, ‘Census of Population and Dwellings’, 2014, (www.stats.govt.nz).
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)
Progression and specialisations
Most dairy farmers start as farm workers or assistants, and progress into other roles such as herd manager or sharemilker. Some eventually buy and run their own farms.
During their career, dairy farmers may choose to specialise in a number of profit-sharing and management roles, such as:
- Contract Milker
- Contract milkers pay for a percentage of the farm costs (without owning the cows) and receive a set reward per kilogram of milk solids.
- Dairy Farm Manager
- Dairy farm managers are responsible for the financial and physical performance of the farm in consultation with a farm's owner.
- Dairy Herd Manager
- Dairy herd managers are paid a wage to look after a herd of cows.
- Operations Manager
- Operations managers are responsible for meeting farm owners' business goals, and other farm management functions such as ensuring farms meet resource requirements.
- Sharemilkers either milk a dairy farmer's cows for a profit share, or own a herd of cows and milk them on an owner's land for a profit share.
Other employment and profit-sharing arrangements are available in the dairy farming industry. The Go Dairy website has details about options.
Last updated 6 July 2019