Working in dairy farming

Guides

Farming in New Zealand will probably be different from what you are used to. This information will help you prepare for your new life working on a New Zealand dairy farm.

Two dairy farmers in New Zealand

Living and Working on a New Zealand dairy farm

The New Zealand dairy sector values migrant workers. No matter how long you stay in New Zealand, it is important that you enjoy your time working here. 

It can take time to adjust to living and working in a new country. It is also important to have the information and support you and your family need, even if you are here on a temporary visa.

Farming in New Zealand will probably be different from what you are used to. New Zealand farms may be large and can be in areas where not many people live. You will also have to deal with the challenges of learning to use different farm equipment, living in a new culture (often called ‘culture shock’), speaking and understanding New Zealand English, making new friends, and becoming a part of your new community.

What is it like working on a New Zealand dairy farm?

Milk is big business in New Zealand and it is New Zealand’s top export earner. There are 4.8 million dairy cows in New Zealand. That is more than the number of people living in New Zealand.

The average dairy farm has 402 cows, but many farms are a lot bigger with some farms having more than 1,500 cows.

If you are thinking about working on a dairy farm, here are some things you need to know.

You need to be good with animals… and more

As well as milking cows, you will have to make hay and silage, lay drains, build and mend fences, sow grass and crops, fix mechanical equipment, safely and skilfully handle powerful machines, and drive motorbikes and quad bikes, do welding and engineering, help cows give birth, test soil, and much more.

It requires a lot of hard work, skills, intelligence, and common sense.

Your attitude is really important

Dairy farmers are looking for people who are keen to learn new things and who have a ‘can-do’ attitude (willing to try new and different types of work).

On a small farm you will work alongside the farm owner, and on a bigger farm you will work as part of a team.

You may have a female employer or “boss” and farm workers may be male or female.

At the start there will be someone to supervise you while you gain skills and work experience. Once you have been on the farm for a while, you will be expected to make work decisions yourself, and to be able to work on your own without being told what to do all the time.

Early morning starts

You will be getting out of bed very early in the morning, because farms start milking by 5am. Most farms will also milk the cows in the afternoon around 3pm.

During the busy times of the year, like calving, you will be working longer hours.

Your employment agreement should give you a good idea of the hours you will work and the breaks you are legally entitled to.

Looking after yourself

As well as looking after cows, you also need to look after yourself. One big difference – especially if you come from a tropical country – is New Zealand’s weather. It can be difficult to get used to our cool and wet climate. Take a close look at the table on page 7 to help you understand how the weather changes over the year. That table also tells you about how the types of work done on a farm change over the year.

It is very important to keep warm. Warm clothing and lots of layers of clothing are essential. Wear the right materials, such as wool, polypropylene, and waterproof clothing. Do not wear cotton in winter. This is because when cotton gets wet, it stays wet for a long time, making you cold. Eat warm meals to give you the energy you need for work, and get plenty of rest so that you can do a good job.

Your employer needs to provide protective clothing and equipment for you. This includes wet weather gear and gumboots.

Working outdoors all year

Most dairy farms are in the countryside and the cows live outside all year. So, whatever the weather is like you will have to work outside all year too.

New Zealand’s climate might be quite different to what you are used to. It is seasonal with a distinct summer and winter, and because we are in the southern hemisphere our summer is between December and February and our winter is between June and August.

The weather can be very different in different parts of the country. The northern regions are generally warmer than the southern regions.

Temperatures can also depend on whether you are near the mountains (where it tends to be colder) or near the sea (where it tends to be warmer). New Zealand weather can also change very quickly, meaning you need to be prepared for any weather changes when you leave the house in the morning.

A year on a dairy farm

 

table caption

Weather

Looking after yourself

Work

Winter: June – August

Usually the wettest season. It can also be very cold with frost, snow and ice. Temperatures normally range from 5-15 °C (41-59 °F) during the day. Cold winds can make it feel much colder. In the middle of winter there are only 9 – 10 hours of sunlight a day.

Wear layers of clothing. Wear clothes made out of materials such as wool, polypropylene, and waterproof clothing. Don’t wear cotton - once it is wet it stays wet for a long time, making you cold. Wearing a wool hat helps to conserve body heat. Eat warm meals to give you the energy you need.

July – September is calving time. It’s a busy time and because it gets cold, looking after the cows and their calves is very important.

​Spring: September – November

The temperatures start getting warmer and the grass starts to grow fast. There is still plenty of rain.

Although the mornings can still be cold, the days can get quite warm. It is best to wear layers of clothing that can be removed as it warms up.

October – December is the time when the cows are giving the most milk. It is also the time when mating and artificial breeding (AB) starts, the grass is turned into hay or silage, and turnips are planted for the cows to eat later in the season.

Summer · December - February

It gets warmer - from 20-30 °C (68-86 °F) in the day. It normally rains less. The sun can be very strong and can make your skin burn within l0 minutes. The sun is hottest between 11am and 4pm. In mid summer there is 15 - 16 hours of sunlight in the day.

The New Zealand sun can burn your skin in 10 minutes so it is very important to wear sunscreen and lipbalm (SPF 30+) and wear sunglasses and a sun hat. Try to wear light clothing that covers your skin. 

In summer the milking continues, as do activities such as making hay, caring for the animals, and planting crops.

Autumn · March – May

Temperatures start to get cooler and there is plenty of rain.

Although the mornings can still be cold, the days can get quite warm. It is best to wear layers of clothing.

April – May is when milking stops (dry-off). A time for repairs to fencing, drainage, irrigation systems, and equipment. Trees may be planted.

Hot tipS 

Tips for migrants

  • Get as much information as you can before you come
  • Be ready for long busy days
  • You will need to learn a lot very quickly. We had to learn to safely drive tractors, motorbikes, and quad bikes as well as learn to build fences, understand animal behaviour, how to grow the best grass, and much, much more
  • Speak to your employer if you think you need more training in any aspect of your work – learning new skills and knowledge is important in this industry, so ask about attending farm courses and training.

Training

Many farms have their own “on farm” training when you start work. They may have an induction programme and offer development opportunities. The best way to find out about these is to ask your employer or manager. There may be a cost for the training so be sure to ask who pays for it. Also ask whether the time to do the training is included in your work hours or is in your own time. You can study or attend training that has been authorised by your employer, as part of your employment, without impact on your visa conditions.

Primary ITO

The Primary ITO (New Zealand’s largest industry training organisation) offers agriculture training in all aspects of dairy farming. From qualifications in dairy breeding, health and husbandry, feeding and pastures, through to management level qualifications in production management and a national diploma in agribusiness management. They also offer short courses in milk quality and effluent management.

Primary ITO Dairy Industry Training

New Zealand employment law

You are protected by the minimum entitlements in law.

You are entitled to a current written employment agreement, signed by your employer and by you and a copy of the agreement for you to keep. An employment agreement records the terms and conditions of your work with your boss.

Annual holidays

You are entitled to at least four weeks of paid annual holidays once you have completed a year of employment. You can take at least two weeks together if you want. You cannot be forced to cash up any leave. If your employment is for less than one year you are entitled to be paid holiday pay at the end of your employment calculated at 8% of your gross earnings (that is your total income before any tax is taken or other adjustment made).

If you have a fixed-term employment agreement of less than a year you can agree to have 8% of your gross earnings added to your regular pay instead of receiving it when you end your employment or take holidays.

Public holidays

In addition to annual holidays, you are also entitled to public holidays. Where a public holiday falls on a day you would normally work you are entitled to have the day off work and be paid as if you had worked it. If you work on a public holiday you are entitled to receive time-and-a-half for the hours you work and if the public holiday you work on is a day you would normally work then you are also entitled to another day off on pay.New Zealand public holidays are:

Sick leave

You are entitled to five days’ paid sick leave each year after six months’ continuous employment. Sick leave can be used when you are sick or injured and also when your spouse or partner, or a person who depends on you for care (such as a child or elderly parent) is sick or injured. If you are sick before you have worked for six months you can ask your employer if you can use some of your annual leave or take unpaid leave.

Bereavement leave

After six months’ employment you are entitled to leave if someone close to you dies. If the person is your spouse, child, brother or sister, mother or father, grandparent, grandchild, or parent of your spouse you are entitled to three days’ leave. For other bereavements you may be entitled to one day’s leave.

Wages no less than the minimum wage

The adult minimum wage rates apply for employees aged 16 or over. They are reviewed every year.

Minimum wage rates | MBIE

Deductions

In general, money cannot be deducted from your pay unless you agree to it, in writing, although some deductions (like PAYE tax) are required by law and do not require written consent.

More information

Immigration New Zealand has produced a guide to work and work rights in New Zealand.

If you have questions or need more information on employment relations, pay, holidays, and health and safety go to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)’s website www.employment.govt.nz or contact MBIE’s contact centre on 0800 20 90 20. Ask for “Language Line” if you want an interpreter.

Make sure you keep yourself safe

Your employer must provide you with a safe workplace with the right training, supervision, and equipment. There are many hazards on the farm and injuries are commonly caused by:

  • animals
  • accidents on vehicles, such as quad bikes, motorbikes, and tractors
  • lifting heavy objects
  • slips, trips and falls, often around the dairy milking shed.

When you start work, your employer must tell you what to do in an emergency (such as a fire or chemical spill) and where emergency equipment and/or first aid kits are kept. Your employer must also tell you how to report any hazard, accident or near miss.

If you don’t have enough information, training or knowledge to carry out a task, tell your employer.

The law also says you must do all you can to be safe when working. For example, your employer must give you training to ride a quad bike safely and you must wear a safety helmet. Employers and workers may be prosecuted if there is an accident and the law has not been followed.

What is it like to live on a New Zealand dairy farm?

Most workers live on the farm in accommodation provided by their employer. This often means your family and home life, your social life and your work life are mixed together.

Your employer must provide you with accommodation that is in good repair, comfortable, warm, well-equipped, and suitable for the number of people living in it.

Most houses for rent in New Zealand are unfurnished but your employer might provide some furniture and equipment for your house on the farm. It’s a good idea to check what will be provided before you leave for New Zealand. You may have to buy:

  • curtains
  • beds, tables, chairs, sofa
  • pots and pans, plates, dishes, mugs, cutlery
  • bed sheets, towels, blankets or quilts, pillows
  • cleaning equipment, vacuum cleaner, broom, mop
  • television, computer, internet access

Sometimes accommodation is shared with other workers and their families. Check with your employer before so you know what to expect before you arrive.

Isolation

Dairy farms are often a long way from shops or schools. You may have to walk for half an hour to meet your next-door neighbours. It is easy to feel isolated.

Your employer should be able to help you get around when you first arrive, but eventually you will need to have some transport so you can get into the nearest town to, for instance:

  • buy groceries
  • play sport
  • see the doctor
  • socialise with friends
  • take part in religious activities

Can you legally drive in NZ?

You need a current driving licence from your home country to drive in New Zealand.

You may also need an international driving permit or a translation of your licence if it’s not written in English.

If you are in New Zealand for more than a year, you need to get a New Zealand driver licence (you may need to take a written and a practical test).

More about driving in new Zealand

How much do things cost in New Zealand?

Many migrants are not sure what they need to buy and some people find things quite expensive relative to their pay.

Rent for your accommodation will probably be deducted from your wages as agreed in your employment agreement. You may also need to buy some furniture and equipment for your house if they are not provided by your employer. Out of your wages you will need to pay for:

  • food
  • heating and electricity for your house
  • telephone bill, internet, mobile phone top-up.
  • clothing
  • visits to doctors
  • insurance (health, car, contents, travel)
  • transport and petrol
  • entertainment
  • immigration costs for you and family members
  • sending money to your family in your home country.

Cost of living in New Zealand

Healthcare & accidents

You may not be eligible for publicly funded health care in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Government strongly recommends that people in New Zealand who are not eligible for publicly funded health services need to have comprehensive travel insurance, including health insurance.

However, if you get injured you can apply for help from the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). It does not matter whether the injury happened at work, during sport or recreation, at home or on the road or if you or someone else caused the accident.

Healthcare services in New Zealand

Eligibility and paying for healthcare services

Will your family come too?

Immigration New Zealand allows you to sponsor family to New Zealand as long as you meet the conditions.

Your family need to be prepared for living in:

  • a rural area
  • a different culture
  • New Zealand on a temporary basis

School in New Zealand

School age dependents of temporary work visa holders will be issued a student visa (domestic) as long as the temporary visa holder is earning the minimum income threshold (NZ$33,675 per annum).

Education & schooling

It is advisable that you tell your employer if you intend to bring family here. Your employer will need to provide a letter endorsing the visa application.

If family do join you, think about the following:

  • Can they speak English?
  • Is there a place for them to live?
  • What schools will your children go to?
  • Can your partner/spouse drive?
  • Can they work?
  • Can they find a job?
  • What social life will they have?
  • What public services, like health care, are they eligible for?
  • Can they adjust to a new country?

What about my English language skills?

Listening

New Zealanders have an unusual English accent and can speak very fast. They often use informal language and a lot of slang. You may also hear swearing and shouting on the farm. Don’t be upset by this. It is very common and not usually said as a personal insult. Many New Zealanders have a direct and frank way of speaking.

Ask your workmates to slow down and repeat or explain any words you don’t understand. You will soon find it much easier to follow what they are saying.

To check that you have understood, repeat instructions back to the speaker. For example: “So I move those cows into that next-door paddock, correct?”

Speaking

Sometimes, when you first start working with your new work colleagues, they may find the way you speak (your accent) a little hard to understand. You can help them by speaking slowly, and making longer pauses between sentences.

Hot TipS 
  • Always ask questions if you don’t understand.
  • Look for opportunities to speak English – at work and outside work. The more you speak English the easier it will be for others to understand you.

Farm jargon

Here are some examples of some new words that you might hear on a New Zealand farm.

table caption

AB > Artificial Breeding (artificial insemination)
Bike > Refers usually to four-wheeler motorbike (quad bike)
Bobby calves > Young calves sold for slaughter
Clover > Common pasture plant eaten by cows
Cocky > Farmer
Colostrum > Cow’s first milk - the first 2-3 days after calving.
Condition score > Condition of stock, particularly important before mating and during and after pregnancy
Crook > To be sick or poorly
Cross-breeds > New Zealand-style cross between Fresians and Jersey dairy breeds
Cups > Suction mechanisms on milking machines
Going to the dairy > The corner store or shop that sells milk, bread, newspapers, and groceries is known as a “dairy”.
Dirt road > An unsealed road (also gravel road or metal road)
Drench > Liquid medication given to animals
Effluent > Liquid animal waste
Forecast > Future prediction e.g. for the weather
Grass based system > Dairy farm relying largely on pastures for feed, with very little supplementary feed
Hairy > Young dairy farm worker
Hard yakka > Hard work
Heifer > Young female cattle (from birth until they become adult cows)
Herringbone shed > Automatic milking shed where cows stand in two rows on either side of a “pit” from where the farm workers put on “cups”
High input system > Dairy farm using substantial supplementary feed in addition to the grass grown on farm
In-calf > Pregnant
Irrigation > System for providing water to crops or pasture
Mastitis > Inflammation of the udder/teats in a milking cow
Milk solids > The solid components of milk (fats and proteins) which are used to calculate payment. Measured in kilograms (“kgs”)
Pasture cover > Amount of feed/grass in the paddock
Plate meter > Device to measure grass cover on the farm
Post and batten > Fence made of wooden posts with smaller supporting wooden ‘battens’ in between the posts
Races > Fenced walkways so that stock can be moved easily around the farm
Rotary shed > Automatic milking shed where cows stand on a rotating platform
Silage > Decomposed grass, stored in plastic covered bales or stacks that is fed to animals
Smoko > A short break from work, a rest period (also known as morning tea/afternoon tea)
Tape > Tape for electric fence that divides paddocks
The shed > Usually the milking shed if on a dairy farm
Two-wheeler > A two-wheel motorbike
Ute > Vehicle with a flat platform
Windbreak > Trees or fencing to stop the wind
Water trough > Large container for drinking water for animals
Young stock > Replacement heifers (cows)

Does everyone work like New Zealanders?

Everyone works in different ways. You will need to get used to the way New Zealanders work. You may also have to work with people from other countries. But first, think about how you work.

Here are some things people from different cultures say about the way they work. Which of these statements would you say?

Statements that a New Zealander might say.

Which of these statements do you think a New Zealander would say? A New Zealander would be more likely to say the statements in these colours: statement colours

What other things do I need to know?

Before accepting a job offer think about the following:

  • Do you have a written job description that accurately describes the job you are being employed to do?
  • Do you know whether the employer has a good reputation for looking after their staff and being fair?
  • Does the accommodation you will be living in meet the needs of you and your family?
  • Who will you be sharing with?
  • What furniture and appliances are provided?
  • What heating does it have? Having a heat pump or a solid fuel burner will save you money.
  • Do you know what hours and which days of the week you will be working?
  • Will you have enough time off to do the other things you and your family would like to do while you are in New Zealand?
  • Is the pay going to be enough to meet your own living costs as well as sending money home, if that is what you intend to do?

Visas

The conditions of your visa specify your position, employer, and location of employment. As a temporary worker you can only work within the conditions of your visa.

If you would like to change employers you will need to reapply for a new work visa before you start any new job. You should approach your nearest Immigration New Zealand branch if you want to change any of the conditions stated on your visa. If you change jobs, your employer must also advise Immigration New Zealand.

No one is allowed to threaten you if you change jobs. Nor is anyone allowed to keep your passport or your personal documents.

If you want to live permanently in New Zealand you need to have a residence visa. Some migrant dairy farm workers gain residence through having higher qualifications, gaining more experience and being given a job with more responsibility.

Visas to work in New Zealand

Visas for partners & children

Immigration Advisers

If you choose to use an immigration adviser (private sector) you should use an immigration adviser who has been licensed by the New Zealand Government. 

If you are unhappy with the advice or services provided by an immigration adviser, you can make a complaint to the Immigration Advisers Authority.

Getting immigration advice

Support for you in New Zealand

There are some government-funded programmes for migrants and for their employers throughout New Zealand.

Information for new migrants

Multilingual support

Support services in your region

Interested in coming to New Zealand?

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