Cows and farms
Most farms are 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 continues to be less common in Australia, but, the use of supplementary feed – grains, hay and silage – is widespread. Supplementary feeding 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 2019 Dairy Australia National Dairy Farmer Survey showed that nearly all dairy farmers engaged in some level of supplementary feeding. In 2018–19 the national average was around 1.6 tonnes per cow and year, unchanged from the last two years. Feeding moderate to high levels of concentrates remains the most common feed system and the proportion of dairy farmers doing so was steady across Australia. Supplementary feeding did however increase in Western Australia over the year, up to an average of 2.3 tonnes per cow per year.
Since 1979–80 the number of dairy farms in Australia has fallen by almost three quarters, to 5,213 in 2018–19. The trend in farm numbers has previously followed 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. Other factors, such as challenging seasonal conditions also affect exits from the industry. This was evident in 2018–19 following a challenging year on farm.
Number of registered dairy farms
Source: State milk authorities
While the number of farms across Australia has decreased, the average herd size is growing. In 1985 the average herd size was 93 cows and in 2018–19 it had grown to 276. 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 sell dairy cows for slaughter in an attempt to stabilise farm income. In 2018–19 the national herd decreased as challenging seasonal conditions resulted in an increase in farm exits and a move to smaller herd sizes on many farms. 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