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Posted September 1998

Dairy farming is a solid career choice, offering good status and pay, a high quality of life, and well-defined training and career paths. That’s the message to New Zealand high school students from technical schools, the national dairy apprentice program, and the dairy industry. And dairy training and career opportunities there not only open the field for new entrants, but also enable smooth expansion and retirement transitions.

Steve Stevenson, associate director of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), and Russell O’Harrow, a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer, traveled to New Zealand to study that country’s dairy structure. CIAS Research Brief #26, “Dairy farmer career paths: getting in, out, and by,” describes their findings and identifies a structured career path for dairy farmers as one of the keys to New Zealand’s successful dairy industry. This brief describes New Zealand’s dairy farmer career ladder, and when applicable, explains comparable career structures in Wisconsin.

Attracting prospective dairy farmers

The researchers report that while less than five percent of Wisconsin dairy farmers come from nonfarm backgrounds, that number was 30 percent in New Zealand as of 1994. Training opportunities available in New Zealand to prospective dairy farmers is one explanation for the interest in dairying by people with no farming background. New Zealand’s dairy training approach makes it possible for people from nonfarm backgrounds to quickly catch on. “One director of a dairy farm training center told us that within a month or two, the farm kids and city kids are about equal,” says Stevenson. The early dairy training program includes both basic skills and rural culture.

One way that New Zealand agricultural technical schools recruit young people is through strong connections to high schools. Contact with high school students and guidance counselors is a recruitment strategy for both private schools and public programs. For example, New Zealand’s Industry Training Organization (ITO) Agriculture actively recruits using such connections for its Dairy Cadet Program, an apprentice-like sequence for young dairy farmers. ITO Agriculture also recruits students from the entry-level farmer trainee courses at the technical colleges.

Non-institutional factors also attract young people into dairy farming. Economics, quality of life, and status are all reasons to enter dairy farming in New Zealand. According to Stevenson, “Most New Zealand dairy producers with whom we spoke considered seasonal dairying and extended vacations among the most important reasons they entered and have remained in dairying.” These quality of life issues, along with being your own boss and working outdoors, make dairy farming attractive to many young people. Dairy farmers in New Zealand are also well-respected and relatively well-compensated, says Stevenson.

Early training

Training of aspiring dairy farmers is guided by the complementary programs of public and private technical schools and ITO Agriculture. Early training comes in the form of a two-year pre-cadet training course, with students typically in their late teens or early twenties, and about half from nonfarm backgrounds. In this course, the student attends classes full-time with an ITO Agriculture-approved program, and completes on-farm internships. This is the first step in a program leading to the national certificate in farm practice, and roughly half of those who complete the pre-cadet course go on to the Dairy Cadet Program.

Dairy farmer recruitment and training in Wisconsin follows both informal family and community-based forms and formal training. High schools, technical schools, and four-year colleges provide some of the formal routes of dairy farmer training. The University of Wisconsin’s Farm and Industry Short Course is a first farm training step for 100 to 150 young people a year, 75 percent of whom become farmers. Since 1995, that program has included CIAS’ Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers, emphasizing management intensive rotational grazing. The school includes weekly grazing seminars taught jointly by veteran farmers and educators and four-month summer grass-based farm internships. While not as intense as in New Zealand, the school paves the way for entry into a relatively low cost method of dairying. Several graduates are now farming.

The Dairy Cadet Program

New Zealand’s ITO Agriculture provides financial and logistical support for young farmers with the Dairy Cadet Program. Dairy cadets earn academic credentials while working as dairy farm assistants, herd managers, or contract milkers. The students typically continue their formal training through courses that meet one day every two weeks. “The farmer trainers, carefully selected and often regarded as outstanding farmers, also provide a wealth of information,” says Stevenson.

ITO Agriculture is responsible for facilitating dairy cadet employment steps with six regional offices. Field officers promote the cadet program and evaluate new cadets, recruit and evaluate farmer trainers, and arrange job interviews for cadets. They also maintain contact with the cadet’s off-farm education program. The cadets earn a national certificate in farm practice at the conclusion of their coursework and apprenticeship, and then work as farm manager, contract milker, and eventually become a sharemilker.


In a sharemilking agreement, a young farmer (called a “sharemilker”) operates a farm on behalf of the farm owner for an agreed share of farm income. Sharemilking has been part of the New Zealand dairy scene for more than 100 years, and offers young farmers a way to build assets and dairy management skills without a large input of money. “Sharemilking serves the needs of young and old dairy farmers, the dairy industry, and the country as a whole,” notes Stevenson. A forthcoming Research Brief will describe sharemilking arrangement specifics.

Larry Tranel, Iowa County extension farm management educator, authored a model sharemilking agreement, and Gary Frank of the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability developed a computer spreadsheet form. These materials on sharemilking, including a sample contract, are available from UW-Extension.

Farm ownership and retirement

After several years of sharemilking, a young New Zealand farmer typically cashes in 400 to 500 of the 600 to 800 cows accumulated during sharemilking to purchase a small farm. At this stage, a dairy farmer will typically continue to add cattle and land to the operation. Dairy farmers in New Zealand enjoy a fair degree of geographic mobility, moving to larger farms as they increase cow numbers. Eventually, they begin to use the labor of dairy cadets and sharemilkers more. “Retirement is a process rather than an event, occurring in distinct phases that involve sharemilkers and laborers more and more and the labor of the farm owners less and less,” says Stevenson.

The fact that the dairy farms are grass-based and have relatively few large capital investments make the sale of the farm reasonable both to the selling and buying farmer. Debt of the selling farmer tends to be low and since capital investment is low, few obsolete facilities exist to make the farm less attractive to buyers, as is sometimes the case in the U.S. However, agricultural land prices have risen significantly in New Zealand over the past five years, causing concern for many first-time farm owners.

Farm Link is a program within the Farmers Assistance Program at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Farm Link provides information and guidance to farmers wishing to enter or retire, expand or relocate. When farmers with complementary goals are located, Farm Link brings them together and helps them with the farm transfer.

Illustration of a New Zealand dairy career pathway by farmer age

  • Early 20s: training at technical schools and farm apprentice-like employment; work as farm assistants, herd managers.
  • Mid-20s to early 30s: manage, milk an owner’s herd for a percentage of the milk check; accumulate own herds.
  • 30s: own their cattle; farm under a 50-50 sharemilking agreement, accumulating cattle.
  • Late 30s to early 40s: sell some of their accumulated cattle to generate a down payment for a small farm.
  • 40s to early 50s: sell small farm and buy large farm.
  • Mid-50s and up: stop milking cows and enter into share agreements with contract milkers or sharemilkers, affording the land-owning farmer many lifestyle choices. They sell or pass on the farm during this phase.

Ideas for Wisconsin

While many of the structures and components of the dairy industry are different from those in New Zealand, Wisconsin’s dairy industry can translate some of the ideas used in New Zealand to encourage more people to enter dairying and make farm entry and exits go more smoothly. Stevenson says, “Most characteristics of the overall New Zealand career structure are quite relevant to our state’s dairying community, but many of the specific institutional arrangements will necessarily be different in Wisconsin.”

The Wisconsin career path components listed here are not being used on a scale large enough to have an impact on the overall structure of the dairy industry. Attracting young people to dairy farming and farm entry/exit issues continue to be pressing problems. And concerns in Wisconsin unlike those faced in New Zealand-such as buying and selling capital and labor intensive dairies, milk marketing conditions, and climatic limitations-make the translation of New Zealand dairy structures difficult. Still, the effort to improve the entry of young people into dairy farming in Wisconsin is certainly informed by the New Zealand model.

Contact CIAS for more information about this research.

Published as Research Brief #33
September, 1998