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 grazing in a year of ‘normal’ seasonal conditions. This results in cost 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 dairying areas reliant on irrigation schemes, most notably in northern Victoria and the New South Wales Riverina.
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 adapted to drier conditions in many dairying regions. Such changes in production systems have introduced an added input cost and additional level of risk in the variability of farm returns.
According to the 2017 National Dairy Farmer Survey, practically all dairy farmers engaged in some level of supplementary feeding during the 2016/17 season, with the national average of around 1.6 tonnes per cow per year unchanged from last year. Feeding moderate to high levels of concentrates remains the most common feed system, however the proportion of dairy farmers doing so fell in both Victoria and Tasmania. Slight increases in feeding were observed in New South Wales and Queensland, due to drier seasonal conditions.
The number of farms has fallen by almost three quarters since 1979/80 from 21,994 to 5,789 in mid-2017. The trend in farm numbers will often follow changes 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 choose to leave the industry or else cease dairying operations in favour of other farming activities such as beef cattle, until market conditions improve.
Nevertheless, falling farm numbers reflect a trend in agriculture around the world, as changing business practices have encouraged a shift to larger, more intensive operating systems with greater economies of scale.
Number of registered dairy farms
Source: State milk authorities
Average herd size has increased from 93 cows in 1985 to an estimated 262 currently. There is also an emerging trend of large farm operations of more than 1,000 dairy cattle.
Despite the increase in average herd sizes over the longer term, one of the variables placing a limit on total milk production in recent years has been a fairly static national herd size. One factor contributing to this situation is that the increased volatility in farm cash incomes has led many farmers to participate in the export heifer trade, or selling dairy cows for slaughter in an attempt to stabilise farm income.
The dominant breed in Australia is the Holstein, accounting for around 65% 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)
|At March 31|
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