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Get an overview of key dairy farm statistics from around Australia on the number of cows and farms.

Cows and farms

There are dairy farms located in all states in Australia and most of milk production takes place in the south-east corner of the country. South-east Australia’s climate and natural resources are generally favourable to dairying and allow the industry to be predominantly pasture-based.In a year of ‘normal’ seasonal conditions, approximately 60%–65% of cattle feed requirements comes from grazing. This results in cost efficient, high-quality milk production.

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.
 
Nevertheless, falling farm numbers reflect a trend in agriculture around the world. Changing business practices have encouraged a shift to larger, more intensive operating systems with greater economies of scale.

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 
690
4,141 421
246 
151 
430 
6,079
2016/17   661  3,889  406  240  148 427  5,771 
2017/18  626  3,881  393  228  159  412  5,699 
 2018/19 (p) 575 3,516  356  212   150 404   5,213

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)


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
2013/14 181 1,093 98 73 66 137 1,647
2014/15 177 1,147 91 68 59 147 1,689
2015/16 182 1,005 89 78 60 149 1,562
2016/17 164 975 86 71 64 160 1,520
2017/18 166 1,023 85 67 56 149 1,547
2018/19 (p)  155  940  75  66  56  148  1,440 

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

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