Over the past three decades farm numbers have steadily decreased whilst average farm size has grown. This has been due to an increase in cow numbers and improved cow yields – up until the major widespread ‘Millennium drought' in 2002–03. The next decade saw a period of consolidation for the industry, with falling cow numbers and dry seasonal conditions constraining production, particularly in northern Victoria.
In recent years, volatility in farmgate milk prices and farm incomes have impacted farmer confidence and the industry's ability to grow. With the industry disruption caused by the late season step-downs in 2015–16 and lower average milk prices in 2016–17, many farmers focused on cost control, refinancing and business consolidation, rather than longer term investments to increase production. In many cases, farmers culled extensively during these years, taking advantage of higher beef prices to maintain cashflow.
The 2018-19 year proved to be very challenging on most farms in Australia. Dry seasonal conditions combined with high cost of feed and water substantially impacted milk production. The drought across the east coast increased demand for feed and saw an unprecedented movement of feed supplies across the country. As supply dwindled, prices increased and placed further pressure on margins, despite a favourable farmgate milk price in most regions. This resulted in a substantial drop in milk production over the year, down 5.7% to 8,795 million litres.
The underlying trend has continued towards fewer farms, larger herds and increasing levels of milk production per farm.
Dairy farming is concentrated in the temperate zone of Australia. Australian milk production remains strongly seasonal in key south-eastern dairying regions, reflecting the predominantly pasture-based nature of the industry. Production peaks in October, tapers off until late-summer, and then flattens out into the cooler winter months. The production of long shelf-life manufactured products in these parts of the country has enabled maximum milk utilisation within the seasonal cycle. However, the seasonality of milk output in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia is much less pronounced, due to a greater focus on drinking milk and fresh products. Farmers in these states manage calving and feed systems to ensure flatter, year-round milk production.
Milk production (million litres) by state
Source: Dairy Manufacturers