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Human resource implications of selected intensification strategies in four pastoral sectors

Bruce Small1, Warwick Waters1, Andrea Murphy-McIntosh1 and Ian Tarbotton2

1 AgResearch Ltd., Ruakura Research Centre, PB 3123, Hamilton, New Zealand. Email
Dexcel Ltd., PB 3221, Hamilton, New Zealand.


Focus group discussions and job task analyses were used to investigate on-farm human resource (HR) implications of adoption of a promising intensification strategy (technology, practice or strategy) in each of four pastoral sectors. The sectors and selected intensification strategies were: robotic milking in the dairy sector; high fecundity sheep in the sheep sector; 100kg weaner by 1st June in the deer sector, and; dairy/beef progeny in the beef sector.

Competency and task identification of on-farm activities developed from the literature were revised and validated for New Zealand circumstances by the focus groups. Focus groups then rated task importance using a method developed by Levine (1983) and identified job positions primarily responsible for task performance. This was done twice for each industry sector: first, under the current circumstances, and second, under the hypothetical circumstance of wide scale industry adoption of the selected intensification strategy. Comparison of the two job analyses (gap analysis) provided an indication of changes in the on-farm HR requirements for each sector resulting from adoption of the selected strategy.

Three key learnings: (1) Acquiring and retaining quality skilled labour is problematic in all four sectors and participants believed that there is little understanding of the various challenging and profitable agricultural industry career paths available; (2) the selected intensification strategies all increased the need for competency in business management and farm planning – primarily for the owner /manager positions, and; (3) training resources were seen as relatively plentiful though poorly focussed on industry needs – particularly as regards providing practical experience to trainees.

Key Words

Competencies, job task analysis, dairy, sheep, deer, beef


In the pastoral sector there are frequent calls for industry intensification in order to maintain productivity increases. There are numerous possible technologies and management strategies that may help enable pastoral farmers to achieve this aim. An earlier AgResearch report (Small et al. 2005a) and conference paper (Small et al. 2005b) investigated the drivers of intensification, and the types of technologies and strategies that farmers in four pastoral sectors (sheep, dairy, deer and beef) could harness to increase productivity. This paper is a summary of findings presented in another AgResearch report (Small et al. 2005c) and covers research findings regarding the likely on-farm human resource impacts of one selected intensification strategy in each of these four pastoral sectors.

The researchers in consultation with experts from the industry sectors, selected one ‘promising intensification strategy’ for in-depth study in each pastoral sector. We used a relatively broad definition of “intensification strategy” i.e., any technologies or farm practices or combinations of technologies and practices that could be adopted for the specific purpose of increasing on-farm productivity. From the sheep sector the promising strategy selected for the study was High Fecundity Sheep. In the dairy sector Robotic Milking was selected. In the beef sector the selected strategy was the use of Dairy/Beef Progeny, while in the deer sector the current industry strategy of producing a “100kg Weaner by the 1st of June” was selected.

The primary focus of the research was on the competency areas and on-farm tasks and activities required to successfully carry out the job under the current practice situation and the ways in which the tasks and activities might change after industry adoption of the selected intensification strategies. The on-farm human resource implications of these changes are discussed. Additionally, data were also gathered regarding perceptions of the current labour pool and training resources available.


In order to determine the required information the same methodological process was used in each of the four agricultural sectors. Data were collected through the use of focus groups of farmers from each pastoral sector. The research is primarily qualitative – it seeks to determine through the use of knowledgeable individuals in group settings, the motivations and beliefs associated with the selected strategies, with a focus on human resource aspects. Beside focus group discussion, two job analyses were carried out for each industry sector – one for current practice, and a second based on hypothetical industry adoption of the selected intensification strategies. A gap analysis, or comparison between the two job analyses, provided indications of the HR implications. This process is described in detail below.

A task list for each of the agricultural sectors’ farming activities was compiled by the researchers from a range of sources including the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (United States Employment and Training Administration, 1991), O*NET (Occupational Information Network Consortium, 2005) and our earlier Working Paper - Human Resource Needs in the New Zealand Agricultural Industry: A Literature Review (Roth et al. 2004). The task lists used had an international as well as a New Zealand flavour, and were revised and verified by the focus groups to reflect the New Zealand situation.

Focus group members rated each task on three separate scales (time, difficulty, criticality) as recommended by Levine (1983). Time refers to a rating of the time spent doing each task, task difficulty refers to the difficulty in doing a task correctly and criticality refers to the consequences of error – that is, the degree to which an incorrect performance would result in negative consequences. Overall task importance values were derived using Levine’s formula i.e., multiplying difficulty by criticality ratings and adding the value for the time spent. Respondents were also asked to identify which job positions had significant responsibility for each task. This process was first completed for each of the four industries “under current industry practice”.

Industry sector focus group members were then asked to consider the hypothetical scenario in which the chosen industry intensification strategy had been universally adopted by the industry and consider if and how the competencies and tasks would change. The focus group members were asked to repeat the rating process, estimating time, difficulty, and criticality for each identified task under the scenario of “universal industry adoption of the selected strategies”.

The means of each sector focus groups’ respondent’s importance ratings for each task were calculated for both the current practice situation and future oriented situation of adoption of the selected strategy. Comparison of the two sets of ratings from each industry allows a speculative indication of how tasks and competencies on the farm might change if the selected intensification strategy was adopted.

In addition, the farmer focus groups also discussed participant perceptions of the current labour environment in their industry sector. Typical issues covered in the facilitated discussion included 1) current availability of labour, 2) skill and knowledge level of available labour, 3) attitude of available labour, 4) adequacy of available training resources, and 4) the role of contractors. As the discussion occurred a recorder entered notes directly into a notebook computer and this was projected to a screen via a LCD projector enabling the focus group to immediately verify accuracy of recorded data, or revise appropriately.


Sheep industry

The sheep industry focus group included 9 participants from the King Country area. The researcher selected strategy for the sheep industry sector was ‘High Fecundity Sheep’. The group identified a number of disparate elements to this strategy: genetics, technology, nutrition, monitoring, knowledge and management practices. The job analyses and group discussion indicated that the competencies and job tasks would remain much the same. However, it was considered that the importance of a range of the job tasks would increase under the high fecundity sheep strategy, suggesting increased knowledge and skill requirements. The entire system would be placed under greater pressure and the negative implications of error would be greater.

The competency areas in which job tasks would become more important were: Animal Husbandry and Health Care (managers, shepherds, and farm workers all responsible for this competency), Human Resource Management (managers responsible), and Business Management and Farm Planning (managers mainly but also shepherds responsible). Therefore, most of the knowledge and skill development required under the scenario of industry adoption of the high fecundity sheep strategy will be at the managerial level. However, the scenario requires that extra care and diligence in monitoring and observing conditions and the early spotting of potential problems will be essential for all levels of employees.

Finding and retaining good quality skilled labour was considered a problem for the industry and the poor image of the industry amongst school leavers was viewed as portending future labour problems. Currently, acquiring unskilled labour is not too difficult. The farmers considered that a good work attitude was of primary importance as individuals with this attribute were likely to be able to rapidly pick up the necessary skills on the job.

While it was agreed that sufficient training providers and training courses were available, the adequacy and effectiveness of these resources were strongly questioned. It was considered necessary to integrate training with practical experience. For this reason the old farm cadet scheme was considered to have produced well-rounded and competent employees. It was felt that perceptions of farming needed to change to promote increased awareness of good career paths available and the potential to earn very good money as an owner or manager.

Dairy industry

The dairy industry focus group included 9 participants from the Waikato area. The researcher selected strategy for the dairy industry sector was ‘Robotic Milking’. Robotic milking is a technology that promises to revolutionise the industry. Currently, in New Zealand, Dexcel is trialling the technology at the Greenfield farm near Hamilton. The group considered that robotic milking would have implications for farm paddock size, paddock layout, feeding systems and labour management.

Group discussion and comparison of the current and hypothetical job analyses indicated that all of the current tasks would still be required and that the majority of tasks would not change much. However, some tasks (e.g., milking and cleaning the milking machines) would be devolved mainly to the robot, making these tasks not as important for human labour input. It was generally considered that when robotic milking had implications for task importance it would make the task easier and less demanding of human input.

However, two tasks were judged likely to increase in importance and demand for human input – the need to inspect and repair fences and yards and maintain farm facilities and robotic equipment. High technology systems, such as robotic milking, require specialised knowledge and technical skills for maintenance and repair. While some considered that farmers and farm workers might have to develop such skills, others thought that expertise would most likely need to be contracted in. The most likely human resource impact was thought to be an overall reduction in the need for farm labour, especially for activities associated with milking. Participants suggested that robotic milking might increase the attractiveness of the job due to improved working conditions and the lifestyle benefits that robotic milking promised (e.g., farm workers not tied to the twice daily milking routine).

The group considered that it was difficult to find good quality skilled labour for dairy farms – especially young people - who were not attracted to the long days and weekend work required on a dairy farm – though the strategy of robotic milking was seen as having the potential to improve this situation. Contractors were expected to play an increasing role in the industry. It was observed that new entrants into the industry were often adults with 10 or more years previous work experience looking for a different lifestyle. Such people present a challenge to training providers – as they require different training to school leavers.

While there was considered to be a wide range of training providers and courses available, the courses were consider too theoretical and not experiential enough. AgITO programmes were favourably perceived. An increasing number of roles and career paths are becoming available in the dairy industry and it was felt that training providers needed to be made aware of the different demands that this situation presented.

Deer industry

The deer industry focus group included 7 participants from the lower South Island. The researcher selected intensification strategy, “100kg weaner by the 1st of June” is aligned with Deer Industry New Zealand’s current vision for the venison industry. The focus of this strategy is to extend the venison season by producing animals that gain weight rapidly and are ready to slaughter before winter. The strategy involves a number of technology elements such as improved genetics and nutrition, earlier fawning, extended venison shelf life, and a managerial focus on young animal production.

Comparison of the current situation job analysis and the job analysis under hypothetical industry adoption of the strategy indicated that, while many of the tasks would remain much the same, several tasks would increase in importance. These include: pasture production and allocation, feeding and nutrition, mating procedures, liaison with advisors, strategic business planning and staff recruitment. The strategy was viewed as requiring smarter farm and business management practices and increased levels of knowledge, along with increased diligence and vigilance, as raised system efficiencies would make errors or problems potentially more critical. Most of these tasks are the responsibility of the owner, often with input from family members. Therefore, this strategy primarily affects the human resource requirements at the level of knowledge and skill development of owners.

Considerable seasonality and relatively low labour needs in the deer industry mean there is not a high requirement for permanent full-time staff: much of the industry suffices with part-time or casual labour assistance with a strong reliance on family members. Nonetheless, the group considered that there was not a large pool of suitable potential labour for the industry. Finding employees with the necessary calm and patient temperament for working with deer was considered difficult. Contractors are becoming an increasingly important part of the deer farming scene and the 100kg weaner by 1st June strategy will continue to strengthen this relationship and need.

The group believed that, while the knowledge, skills and competencies of owners and workers needed to improve to attain maximum benefit from the strategy, there are adequate training resources currently available to the industry. The strategy was not seen as likely to create significant changes in the amount of labour required, though changes might occur in the timing of labour demands.

Beef industry

The beef industry focus group included 12 participants from throughout the North and South Islands. The researcher selected strategy for the beef industry was “dairy/beef progeny”. This strategy involves the use of beef bulls or semen over dairy herds (for the cows not chosen to produce dairy replacements) to supply beef cattle to the beef industry. Rearers and finishers believe that this strategy could produce higher value animals suitable for prime cuts of meat. Currently 65% of cattle for the beef industry are sourced from dairy industry surplus. A recent study by McDermott et al. (2005) indicated that increasing dairy/beef progeny from 19% to 29% of the NZ dairy herd could increase net returns for the national beef industry by $57m (7.2% increase). Focus group participants included representatives from the dairy industry, calf rearers, and beef finishers – most participants had farming experience in at least two of these sectors and sometimes all three.

Group discussion indicated that both calf rearers and beef finishers were very keen on the dairy/beef progeny strategy. However, the strategy does not receive similar levels of support from dairy farmers for several reasons. Producing cattle for beef farmers is not a core business for dairy farmers but does bring in extra cashflow at a slow period of the year. However dairy/beef progeny are perceived to pose significant threats for the dairy farmer – particularly in terms of calving difficulties and animal health and welfare – therefore, posing potential financial risks.

Comparative study of the current and hypothetical situations supported the outcomes of the group discussion. For the rearers and finishers there was an expectation that dairy/beef progeny would, if anything, make their job easier. In line with this expectation most of the tasks that the rearers and finishers were responsible for either retained the same level of importance, or in a few instances, became less critical. On the other hand, the tasks carried out by the dairy farmer, particularly those related to breeding, birth and animal welfare, increased in relative importance. Hence, the primary on-farm human resource impacts of the strategy would be felt on the dairy farm. For dairy farmers participating in the strategy, increased diligence and vigilance would be required for such tasks as: attending to animals during birth; observing animals for oestrus, signs of illness, injury, stress or unnatural behaviour; treating animal illness or injury following instructions from veterinarians; and engaging veterinarians to care for serious illness or injury. The strategy requires dairy farmers to have greater knowledge and skills in the competency of animal husbandry and animal health care.

The focus group expressed considerable concern regarding the current industry labour situation. High turn over along with an insufficient pool of quality, skilled and knowledgeable labour currently characterise the industry. The group also considered that often young people did not have an appropriate work ethic for the industry. A good attitude was considered all important. However, it was also noted that, in the past, farmers had contributed to this problem through poor staff management skills and by expecting too much from young staff – long hours, inadequate time off, and poor pay. The role of contractors was expected to increase in importance and was viewed as an alternative entry point to the industry.

Access to the industry as an owner is becoming increasingly difficult due to the high capital cost of land. New entrants require mentoring and financial assistance to achieve ownership. However, career paths were changing and becoming more varied in the industry, with farms becoming larger and managerial positions, rather than ownership, becoming career goals. It was noted that public perceptions of employment conditions in the industry are quite negative and that work is required to change public attitudes and perceptions about the industry for improvement in the labour supply to occur. Increased publicity to highlight the range of jobs and career paths and their potential earning power was advocated by the group.

While plenty of training establishments and courses were available, the quality of the courses was questioned. Practical experience was highly prized and many courses were viewed as too theoretical. Schools were considered to produce ‘young people without skills or ethics’, polytechnics were seen as ‘pricing themselves out of the market’ and private training establishments as ‘primarily interested in capturing funding’.


Previous research indicates that pastoral intensification is primarily being driven by high land values, the need to maintain or increase profit and return on investment, competing alternative land uses, and increasing international market competition (Small et al, 2005a, 2005b). An interesting peripheral issue that surfaced in the focus groups regarding intensification strategies was farmers’ views of urban dwellers’ and consumer markets’ perceptions regarding environmental and animal welfare issues. Urban dwellers and consumer markets were considered not to understand the requirements and necessities of farming, and therefore to be likely, from a position of relative ignorance, to place unreasonable restrictions on livestock intensification practices. However, the farmers also believed that the farming sector had a responsibility to ensure good animal welfare practices were followed and to ensure that farming practices were environmentally sustainable under any intensification strategy.

There was considerable similarity in the human resource issues facing the dairy, beef, sheep, and deer pastoral sectors. Acquiring and retaining skilled, quality labour was considered challenging for all four pastoral sectors. Young people were viewed as not very interested in farming, having outdated perceptions of farming and working conditions on farms, little understanding of the agricultural career paths available to them, and poor understanding of potential earnings in the industry. Career pathways were seen as changing and evolving with options increasing and increased levels of knowledge and skill being required. However, it was considered that there was little recognition of the available options in career counselling and little advocacy for farming careers as suitably challenging for intelligent students in schools.

The intensification strategies examined for this project were found to have differing human resource impacts on their respective industries. However, they generally all increased the need for competency in business management and farm planning skills – primarily at the owner or manager level. It was believed that the high fecundity sheep strategy will increase labour and skill requirements but perhaps be detrimental to lifestyle aspects of sheep farming. The robotic milking strategy will likely reduce labour requirements, and change some skill requirements, while also making dairy farming more attractive to potential employees by removing the drudgery of milking. In the deer industry, the 100kg weaner strategy will likely increase the skill and knowledge levels required, but have little effect on the amount of labour. The dairy/beef progeny strategy will have its major human resource impacts in the dairy sector, requiring changed mindsets and increased skill and knowledge in the animal husbandry and health care competency.

Focus groups from all four sectors considered training resources to be relatively plentiful, though poorly focussed on industry needs – particularly as regards to a balance of theory and practical experience. Courses that maintained a balance between theory and practice were considered to produce the most capable and useful employees.

Research is currently underway to investigate the off-farm HR impacts of the selected intensification strategies. The data for the analysis presented above was gathered using qualitative techniques and knowledgeable industry leaders. It does not purport to be representative of the views of all farmers. Areas of future research could include verification of the view points expressed above and exploration of the likely industry adoption of the four selected intensification strategies.


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