The grass-based system and work life balance in Ireland

The ‘Cows eat grass, don’t they?’ project is a social sciences project exploring the future of grass-based, higher input and indoor dairy systems in the UK and Ireland. The project runs from 2018-2021 and is funded by the British Academy. 19 interviews were carried out with people working in the dairy industry in Ireland, including 11 from industry, 4 from academia, 1 from an NGO and 3 from government. 19 interviews with dairy farmers in Leinster and Munster were carried out. 26 industry documents were analysed.

Results on Irish dairy expansion, power structures within the grass-based system and work life balance:

  • Most interviewees were optimistic and positive about expansion and supportive of the grass-based system.
  • But low milk prices and unequal power structures mean expansion also isn’t fully seen as a choice for farmers.
  • This can create stress and a feeling of lack of control over their own farm and their place in the industry.
  • In addition, farmers feel like public debate is turning against them in relation to the environment and animal welfare.
  • This can also create stress and a feeling of lack of control over the public narrative about the work they do.
  • Ideally, farmers would like higher milk prices and more control over the public and industry conditions they work within.
  • Expansion had differing impacts on work life balance – beneficial for some, not for others.
  • When they expanded some people were able to hire more labour and reduce their own workload. Others worked extra hours to manage the increase in cow numbers.
  • Farmers wanted work life balance to be valued better in the industry and by other farmers.
  • Working hard was traditionally seen as part of being a ‘good farmer’.
  • More emphasis within the industry on the importance of a good work life balance would help restore some feeling of control and align the direction of the industry with what farmers want for their own working life.
  • Creating shared values around not working long hours is useful but at the same time doesn’t solve problems around structural inequality and the financial and time pressures farmers are under.