Numbers of dairy farms and cows have plummeted in Brazil, but milk production has largely held up. By Wagner Beskow.

While the most common complaint expressed by Brazilian dairy farmers has been the significant increase in production costs in the last two years (from NZ$4.76 to NZ$8.73/kg milksolids), their structural bottlenecks are actually labour shortage and family succession.

In farmers’ own words, “dairy farm labour is difficult to find, when we find them they’re usually no good and when they’re good they do not last”.

This will come as no surprise to Kiwi farmers, where the problem has been present for years now, but it is recent in Brazil. Mexican immigrants are known to fill a similar gap in the US, Indians in Italy, Turks in Germany, Portuguese in the United Kingdom, South Americans from various countries in New Zealand and so forth. In Brazil, we increasingly see immigrants from Venezuela, Bolivia, Senegal, Ghana, and more recently Argentina, while still in small proportions, as none of them seem to have fit in.

Brazil has made good investments in education over the last few decades but no efforts have been made to train dairy farm operators, especially milkers. Also, Brazilian farmers are not prepared to deal with the newer generations of employees, especially in modern labour legislation.

More recently, a number of private training courses and consultancy services have specialised in helping farmers acquire the skills to better manage rural human resources, but it is far from making a difference yet.

High costs, insufficient skills, unreliable or poor performance, and high turnover are the main employers’ concerns. Employees, on the other hand, complain about low wages, long hours, not enough days off, remoteness of some farms, living and working conditions (especially housing and milking installations).

Family business succession

On many dairy farms, the younger generations are not interested in continuing their parents’ business. Those who fall into this category find it takes too much effort, risk and commitment for a very limited net income. However, this perception has improved slightly with increasingly better internet access in the countryside. Parents who manage to get their children to continue their business are usually those who get them involved early in life and value their participation throughout. Also, these parents tend to be more open minded and willing to adapt and change where needed.

Access to new technological solutions, especially in the last decade or so, has helped improve quality of life and to some extent the perception that the young ones had about dairy farming as “slaves’ work”, as it was often uttered.

The table illustrates recorded and expected changes in number of farms and cows, as well as in cow and farm annual production, all relative to 2015 (set to 100), for the state of Rio Grande do Sul in South Brazil, one of the most important dairy regions in the country. From 2015 to 2021 there was a staggering 52% reduction in the number of dairy farms, 26% reduction in cow numbers but only a 3% reduction in milk production. This was thanks to a 31% increase in milk production per cow.

The trend is forecast to continue to 2030, when only 14% of the farmers will be milking 44% of the cows, which will have more than doubled their production to yield a similar amount of milk per farm, as of 2015 figures.

  • Wagner Beskow is a senior dairy researcher and farm consultant with Transpondo, Brazil.