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Posted February 1998

If you want to know how important women are to running a dairy farm in Wisconsin, just ask farm couples. Six hundred farm couples were surveyed about their roles on dairy farms as part of a University of Wisconsin study. The research reveals the diversity of women’s roles on Wisconsin dairy farms-from raising calves and baling hay to making long-term financial decisions.

Lydia Zepeda, a UW economist who headed the study, says even though women have diverse roles on dairy farms, in the past, their roles in farm operations and decisions have been overlooked. “There was always an assumption that there was one decision-maker on the farm, usually male. Actually, spouses and children often work together to make decisions about the farm. Much of what they decide they talk about over the kitchen table.”

Zepeda and a team of researchers surveyed Wisconsin dairy farming couples about their farming goals, how they make daily and long-term decisions, and how they spend work and leisure time. The researchers also examined whether farming methods-based on management intensive rotational grazing or confinement systems-influence decisions and roles. Previous studies have shown a correlation between increased machinery use and diminished women’s roles on dairy farms.

The research was funded by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS). The UW team included Marco Castillo, a graduate student in agricultural economics; Cynthia Lay, a graduate student in the Institute for Environmental Studies; Mark Goodale, a graduate student in anthropology; Kevin McSweeney, professor of soil science; Sara Steele, emerita professor of Continuing Adult and Vocational Education; and Dan Undersander, professor of agronomy.

Decision making and time use

The researchers surveyed 600 farm couples in Taylor, Crawford, and Clark counties in Wisconsin. These counties have the highest percentages of farmers who practice management-intensive rotational grazing versus confinement farming, so researchers could compare whether choice of farming methods influenced how men and women make decisions about the farm.

The researchers surveyed farm couples about their time use, off-farm employment, farming goals, and decisions about pastures, crops, machinery, dairy herd, farm production, household budgets, and leisure time.

Nineteen farm families participated in follow-up focus groups in which they were asked to describe a long-term farming decision, such as the decision to continue farming, to upgrade equipment or facilities, or to graze their herds.

Long-term planning vs. daily decisions

Like other businesses, running a dairy farm requires diverse skills, cooperation, and commitment. Women and men surveyed often indicated distinct activities on dairy farms, based on areas of expertise. Farm couples indicated men often make daily decisions about crops, machinery, feed, and pastures, while women often have primary responsibility for household budgets, child care, and decisions about leisure activities.

Focus groups revealed that men tend to make decisions about feed, while women make decisions about the care of calves and milking. Couples often make joint decisions about capital and dairy herds and long-term financial decisions (see table). “There’s definitely a division of labor,” says Zepeda. “The farmers in the focus groups said that the person who does the job makes the decisions. It’s very hands on-the day to day decisions. But the big decisions that involve long-term judgements about money-these get discussed around the dinner table.”

Zepeda says the survey suggests dairy farm husbands consider their wives equal participants. However, follow-up studies suggest some decisions may not be as mutual as the survey indicates. “In the focus groups, some wives said that they felt that they ratified their husband’s decisions, while husbands tended to say it was a joint decision,” Zepeda notes.

The survey found similar responses among farmers who practice grazing or confinement farming, suggesting the type of farming does not greatly influence how farm couples make decisions. Factors that did influence decision-making among farm couples include debt load, number of children, age of the couple, and off-farm employment.

Who makes decisions about the farm?
Percentage of respondents, by gender, who believed that the following farm decisions were made by the men of a farm family
Male respondents Female respondents
Area Graziers Nongraziers Graziers Nongraziers
Crops 90.4 90.8 91.1 89.4
Feeding 89.1 81.1 84.0 80.9
Pasture 78.2 61.3 74.3 67.9
Capital 61.6 59.4 66.0 62.0
Dairy herd 65.4 55.2 63.5 53.7
Off-farm employment* 64.3 59.4 1.1 2.2
Budget admin.** 3.2 1.0 3.2 1.0
Leisure time** 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0
IRG adoption potential*** 64.8 43.1 54.3 52.6
There were 156 graziers and 424 nongraziers for each gender.
* respondents were asked about their own off-farm employment
** responses correspond to either spouse, 600 total responses
*** asked of farmers who currently use IRG. For nongraziers, the survey asked about the potential to adopt.

How dairy farmers spend their time

Researchers wanted to learn how farm couples spend their days, predicting that time use may influence decision-making. Respondents indicated how many hours each day they spend on activities, such as farm work, leisure, housework, and off-farm jobs (see table below).

These time-use surveys reveal a striking versatility in farm women’s roles compared to men’s, as women’s time is often split equally between farm work, off-farm work, and household responsibilities. Grazier and nongrazier women estimate they spend on average about 5.1 hours daily on farm work, 2.7 hours on off-farm employment, and about 7 hours on household work and child care. Men showed more focused roles, spending an average of 10.7 hours per day on farm work, about 0.6 hours on off-farm work, and 2 hours on household work.

Not only do women’s roles on dairy farms appear more diverse than men’s, their work days seem to be longer. Women estimated they worked about 14.7 hours per day, while men estimated they worked about 13.2 hours per day. One woman dairy farmer said, “I constantly am working. I’m on the go doing something all day long.”

About 48 percent of the women surveyed work off-farm, compared to 29 percent of the men. Zepeda says some farm women have what amounts to three full-time jobs: working on the farm, working off-farm, and doing housework and caring for children. “If you look at the men’s total hours, the men aren’t able to account for about an hour and a half per day, and the women account for a little more than 24 hours in a day.”

Graziers surveyed tend to work slightly fewer hours on the farm than non-graziers and have more leisure time. This reduced demand for labor allows more women to work off-farm, which translates into more off-farm income, but less influence in daily farm decisions. However, grazier women surveyed appeared to have no less influence over long-term decisions compared to nongrazier women.

Graziers say they find grazing attractive in part because of better quality of life compared to confinement farming. Those surveyed were more likely than nongraziers to say they had enough leisure time to spend with their spouses and children.

Time use on the farm by gender for graziers vs. nongraziers
per day in each activity
Men Women
Graziers Nongraziers Graziers Nongraziers
Farm work 10.48 10.83 4.27 5.43
Off-farm work 0.56 0.53 3.11 2.53
Housework* 2.06 1.90 7.24 6.84
Leisure* 9.58 9.30 9.67 9.23
* Housework
includes childcare; leisure includes sleep and self-care.

Similar goals, shared purpose

Despite differences in men’s and women’s roles on dairy farms, Zepeda says farm couples share goals. Many people farm in part because they enjoy being on the land and value the farm as a good place to raise children, she says. Farm couples also say they enjoy working together.

Women farmers say taking vacations, improving living standards, and making their own money are important. They indicate that nonfarmers and people outside of their families often don’t recognize their contribution to farming. “Women working on farms see themselves as farmers, and they are incredibly important to farming,” says Zepeda.

Contact CIAS for more information about this research.

Published as Research Brief #29
February, 1998