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Dairy Labor Shortage: How immigration policy plays a role

Photo by Ben Nuelle

The U.S. unemployment rate may currently be at record lows, but that is not the case for the nation’s dairy producers. Many are still in need of workers who are willing and able to contribute to the future of milk production. It’s an issue fraught with political, economic and cultural influences.

Peter Cole, policy expert with Holstein Association USA, explains why the dairy industry struggles to find workers.

“As the number of people in the U.S. with any farm background continues to go down, hiring good people is more challenging than ever. The biggest labor issue of U.S. dairy farmers is simply competing with non-farmer employers to hire people willing and able to work on a farm,” Cole said.

While non-farm employers seem to be luring away potential workers, the U.S. dairy industry has found another pool of willing and able farm labor: immigrants.

“Dairy farmers are more and more relying on immigrants as a reliable source of farm labor. They are willing and able to do the work. They’re oftentimes very good works, and frankly, they’ll do the work that many of our U.S. people won’t do,” Cole said.

Dairy producers understand and fully support efforts to stop illegal immigration, Cole said, and improved regulations could benefit the dairy industry.

“Current immigration regulations for ag workers are intended to permit seasonal migrant workers into our country to work for short periods of time and then return to their home country. To make it effective for dairy workers, those regulations need to be expanded to address the needs for long-term, year-round workers that dairy farmers so desperately need,” Cole said.

It’s a double-edged sword for dairy producers—who need the workers, but face a critical shortage of laborers.

“If the farmers can’t get enough people to do that, the trend has been toward more and more mechanization,” Cole said. “Dairy farms are certainly looking at larger milking parlors and expensive robotic equipment to feed and milk the cows, replacing those workers with machines.”