Cows and farms

Southeast Australia’s climate and natural resources are generally favourable to dairying and allow the industry to be predominantly pasture-based, with approximately 60–65% of cattle feed requirements coming from homegrown feed in a year of ‘normal’ seasonal conditions. This results in efficient, high quality milk production.

Most dairy production is located in coastal areas where pasture growth generally depends on natural rainfall. Nevertheless, there are several inland irrigation schemes, most notably in inland northern Victoria and southern New South Wales.

Total mixed ration (TMR) dairying remains the exception in Australia, although the use of
supplementary feed (grains, hay and silage) is widespread and has increased significantly over the past decade as farmers have had to adapt to drier conditions in many dairying regions. Such changes in production systems have introduced an additional level of risk in the variability of farm returns.

According to the 2016 National Dairy Farmer Survey, 97% of dairy farms fed an average of 1.6 tonnes of grain, grain mixes or feed concentrates per cow during the 2015/16 season. With the exception of South Australia and Western Australia (slight decrease and increase, respectively), this was unchanged from the average usage recorded in the previous two seasons. Drier seasonal conditions across many dairying regions and higher hay and grain prices meant that farm outlays on supplementary feeding increased markedly across Australia in 2015/16.

The number of farms has fallen by more than two-thirds over the last three decades from 19,380 in mid-1985 to 6,102 in mid-2015. The trend in farm numbers will often follow the trend in farmgate milk prices from season to season, with strong prices either slowing the rate of attrition or even reversing the long-term trend. At times of low farmgate milk
prices, farmers do choose to leave the industry or else cease dairying operations until market conditions improve.

Nevertheless, falling farm numbers do reflect a long term trend observed in agriculture around the world, as reduced price support and changing business practices have encouraged a shift to larger, more efficient operating systems.


Number of registered dairy farms

  NSW VIC QLD SA WA TAS AUST
1979/80 3,601 11,467 3,052 1,730 622 1,522 21,994
1989/90 2,220 8,840 1,970 969 496 901 15,396
1999/00 1,725 7,806 1,545 667 419 734 12,896
               
2005/06 1,024 5,892 802 383 245 498 8,844
2006/07 924 5,346 734 354 222 475 8,055
2007/08 886 5,422 664 332 186 463 7,953
2008/09 860 5,462 648 320 183 451 7,924
2009/10 820 5,159 621 306 165 440 7,511
               
2010/11 807 4,588 595 286 170 437 6,883
2011/12 778  4,556  555  275  162  444  6,770 
2012/13
731  4,284  518  268  160  437  6,398 
2013/14
710
4,268
475 264
156
435 6,308
2014/15
704
4,127
448
252
157
440
6,128
2015/16 (p)
685
4,141 421
259
162*
434
6,102
*Estimate
Source: State milk authorities 

Average herd size has increased from 93 cows in 1985 to an estimated 284 currently. There is also a steady trend emerging to very large farm operations of more than 1,000 head of dairy cattle.

The dominant breed in Australia is the Holstein, accounting for around 75% of all dairy cattle. Other important breeds include the Jersey, the Holstein/Jersey cross, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire and local breeds, the Australian Red and the Illawarra.

Number of dairy cows (000 head)

  NSW VIC QLD* SA WA TAS AUST
At March 31
1979/80 311 1,047  247  103  71 103 1,880
1989/90 238 968 201 89 64 92 1,654
1999/00  289 1,377 195 105 65  139 2,171

New Series*** 

2005/06 222 1,217 127 104 67 143 1,880
2006/07 210 1,150 121 114 60 140 1,796
2007/08 195 1,055 100 103 54 134 1,641
2008/09 201 1,061 107 106 52 149 1,676
2009/10 203 1,014 98 92 55 134 1,596

2010/11 195   1,010 97      90    59   138   1,589
2011/12
204 1,115
101 76
57
148
1,700 
2012/13
210 1,096 96 77 62
148 1,688
2013/14 (r) 181
1,093 98
73
66
137
1,647
2014/15 (r)
177 1,147 91
68
59
147
1,689
2015/16 (p)
177 1,120 91 67
62
146
1,663

Source: ABS and Dairy Australia

* For 1999 and 2000, QLD state figure includes NT cow numbers
** From 2001, census date is June 30, NT and ACT numbers are included in the national total
*** Change in ABS data collection