Picture in your mind a person who cares for dairy cattle, practicing good animal husbandry. He or she enjoys spending time with the herd and has detailed knowledge about each individual cow.

Stup richard
Agricultural Workforce Specialist / Cornell University

This person’s work includes handling all of the chores required to care for the herd, tasks such as feeding, milking, breeding and caring for each cow’s health and well-being. This image is not just a nostalgic recollection of dairy’s golden days; it may well be an image of the future of the dairy workforce.

Let’s consider the current state of our workforce in transition and attempt to peer ahead to catch a glimpse of the future dairy workforce.

Low-skill, low-wage jobs in a high-skill, high-wage economy

The U.S. dairy industry, along with other sectors of agriculture, is severely challenged by workforce issues. Dairy businesses struggle to find enough workers, especially to fill jobs in front-line, manual labor positions such as milkers. Why is that? The U.S. is a high-skill, high-wage economy.

Our society is organized to educate and train our youth to prepare them for high-skill, high-wage jobs. Attend any high school or college graduation, and you will find many young people aspiring to be programmers, accountants, attorneys, engineers, managers, marketers, designers, health care workers and even entrepreneurs, but you will find virtually none aspiring to be a milker on a dairy farm.


Other industries with low-skill jobs, such as textile mills, simply left the U.S. economy if they could. They sent manufacturing overseas, where the type of workers they needed could be found.

Agriculture depends on a land base that can’t be moved, so we turned to the immigrant workforce, bringing in our low-skill, low-wage workers from other countries. That strategy is beginning to fail, due largely to outdated and unrealistic federal immigration policy but also due to other factors.

Mexico’s lower birthrate, increasing education and growing economy is creating more opportunities for Mexicans to stay home and secure better jobs. There are fewer young Mexicans seeking work these days, and they are climbing the skill and wage ladder just like Americans.

Even the children of immigrant farmworkers already in the U.S. often don’t come back to the farm. One large dairy operator told me recently of two long-term immigrant employees whose children are now studying in American colleges for careers in health care. Low-skill farmwork is not likely in their future.

The future of the dairy industry in the U.S. depends on reducing or eliminating low-skill jobs and replacing them with technology and high-skill jobs. This process is well underway, with the adoption of self-guided farm machinery, group calf feeders, robotic feed pushers and automatic milking systems.

It will continue, painfully at times, until the industry consists of highly productive, high-skill workers using technology to manage cows and produce milk.

The future dairy worker

The high-skill dairy worker of the future will have a wide span of control over the process of milk production. Today’s individual tasks such as milking or feeding will be automated, but our future worker will orchestrate the whole process. This wide span of control and diverse activities will have the effect of enriching dairy jobs, making them more interesting and attractive. Qualities required of future dairy workers will include:

  • Critical thinking. Workers will need to analyze data, apply concepts and use knowledge gained from experience and training. They will focus on solving problems and improving processes in order to achieve the best performance from the herd they manage.

  • System analysis. Cows are biological systems, and we support and house them within technological systems. Changes in any part of the systems affect other parts. Our future dairy workers must understand and think systematically rather than just focusing on individual tasks and pieces of the system.

  • Data savvy. Each worker will have hundreds of animals under his or her supervision. Knowledge of each animal will come from health and production data technology systems will collect and store. Workers will interpret that data in order to make decisions about individual and herd management.

  • Educated. Whether gained through formal college education or on-the-job learning and “barn smarts,” the future dairy worker will be a knowledgeable worker.

  • Cow-comfortable. Dairy jobs won’t become strictly computer jobs; there will still be a physical component. Workers will spend time in the barn observing cows and verifying trends found in the data.

    Other interventions, such as assisting with calving and administering shots and other treatments, will still be hands-on activities for workers. Knowledge of animal science, cow sense and hands-on cow skills will continue to be important.

Where will they come from?

It will be important for individual farms and the industry to attract people into high-skill careers in dairy; otherwise we may still be faced with workforce shortages. Fortunately, dairy workers of the future will not need to be born into the industry, as many are today. They will come from diverse sources.

  • Animal caretakers. Animal science programs have long attracted students from non-farm backgrounds who just love animals. A few of these folks already find their way to farmwork, but the number will grow as technology and skill levels increase.

  • Immigrants. Many people in our present immigrant workforce are learning more advanced skills and taking on additional responsibilities as herd managers and even farm managers. They will continue to progress and represent a big part of the future. They will be joined by other immigrants from countries all over the world who seek modern dairy careers.

  • Balance seekers. Dairy jobs will attract people who want a balance of thinking and hands-on in their work. Many other careers leave people stuck in a cubicle; in contrast, future dairy jobs will offer a healthy and interesting balance. Intentionally structuring jobs to give people a wide range of responsibilities and control over the whole production process will help attract, motivate and retain people.

  • Diversity. We will find people from all backgrounds to do these jobs: rural and urban, men and women, and people from diverse populations. The dairy industry must unite with all of agriculture and begin to attract people from general populations to understand, consider and seek careers in agriculture. Modern, high-tech jobs will make this much more feasible.

  • Idealists and agriculturalists. The production of food for humans is an important and meaningful endeavor. Some people, even without farm backgrounds, will be attracted to the essential nature of agriculture. Of course, there will still be many who grew up with farming in their blood and will pursue agriculture as a calling.

There are difficult years ahead as we continue to transition away from dependence on low-skill labor which is so hard to secure in the U.S. It is imperative for our industry and nation to seek interim solutions for our present labor problems, but we must also look ahead and prepare for a very different future workforce.

Dairy workers of the future will have strong technical backgrounds and good educations. They will have options to work in other industries, but they will choose to work in dairy because of the interesting balance of technology systems and hands-on animal care and management.

Richard E. Stup

Technology de-skilled jobs and technology will re-skill them again

Frederick Taylor was the first great management guru of the 20th century. His “scientific management” approach sought to break jobs down into component parts and measure exactly how long each step should take. Once the component parts were defined and measured, they could be efficiently supervised and controlled.

The goal was to eliminate thinking and decision-making from jobs as much as possible. Picture tightening bolts on an assembly line, not building a whole car.

Technology enabled the full application of scientific management as machines combined with labor to industrialize many processes. In the dairy industry, technology allowed us to move from a dairy farmer managing all parts of a business to more specialized jobs such as milker or feeder, and then to the extreme of rotary parlors where even milking is divided up into individual tasks of dipping, wiping, attaching units and post-dipping.

Technology such as automated milking systems will take us back the other way. Robots will do the repetitive tasks such as milking, mixing and pushing up feed.

High-skill dairy workers will use specialized knowledge and critical thinking skills to solve problems, manage information and come up with creative process improvements. Their job will be to manage the whole production cycle for large groups of cows in their care.