Cows and farms
Most dairy production is located in coastal areas where pasture growth is generally reliant on 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 less common in Australia. However the use of supplementary feed – grains, hay and silage – is widespread and has increased significantly over the past decade as farmers adapt to drier conditions. Such changes in production systems have introduced an added input cost and additional level of risk in the variability of farm returns.
The number of farms has fallen by almost three quarters since 1979/80, from 21,994 to 5,699 in mid-2018. The trend in farm numbers will often follow changes in farmgate milk prices from season to season. Strong prices tend to either slow the rate of attrition or even reverse 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 farming.
Number of registered dairy farms
Source: State milk authorities
Average herd size has increased from 93 cows in 1985 to an estimated 273 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 the increased volatility in farm cash incomes. This 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 70% 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