Australian dairy farming is in the midst of change. After the deregulation of the industry in 2000, the industry mantra quickly became “get big or get out”. Since then the trend has been towards fewer but larger, more intensive operations, which may put more stress on the environment, dairy cows and resources such as water, grain and land.
Farmers are responding to pressures for more milk at less cost and are adopting methods that aim to maximise production per cow and per farm. In fact, the number of dairy farms has more than halved over the past two decades while total milk production has remained relatively stable. There are an increasing number of farms employing methods popular in the US and Europe, namely semi and total feedlots.
Which path will Australian dairy continue to follow?
As consumers, we hold the power to help direct where the Australian dairy industry will go, and we hold it right in our hip pockets. By choosing to purchase dairy that has been produced organically, from sustainably-managed local-as-possible farms, we’re telling the industry how we want things done. We’re saying no to ethically and environmentally-questionable practices and yes to sustainable, ecological and ethically-minded farming. It all starts by making the right choices when it comes to purchasing dairy products.
At the same time, our governments need to implement policies that will serve to prevent the further exploitation of dairy cows in the face of growing overseas demand.
Aussies are BIG on dairy
There’s no doubt that dairy is a staple in the Australian diet. In fact, our cereal-munching, coffee-guzzling, butter-bandit society is such that each of us swallowed 107L of milk, 13.5kg cheese, 3.7kg butter and 7.6kg yoghurt in 2012-2013 alone.[i] We are amongst the highest dairy-consuming nations in the world.[ii]
The Dairy Diaries explores these themes and more in the sections below.
A water cooler briefing of Australian dairy
Dairy in Australia is big business. We’ve moved a long way from the initial ‘four cows, a bull and a calf’ that were brought to Australia by the First Fleet[iii]:
- We currently have 1.65 million dairy cows grazing on 6,400 dairy farms across our sunburnt country[iv].
- 80% of Australian dairy farms are pasture-fed, although 50% of these also feed their cows over 1 tonne of grain/supplementary feed each year.[v]
- The majority of dairy farms – 68% – are located in Victoria.[vi]
- Over the past two decades, the number of dairy farms in Australia has more than halved. There are fewer but much larger operations.
- Australian dairy farms produced 9.2 billion litres of milk in 2012-13.[vii] Production is expected to rise to 9.5 billion litres in 2018-19 because of a rise in demand – particularly from Asian countries. [viii]
- As Western dietary influences have crept into Asia, so too has their demand for milk. In 1960, the average per capita consumption of milk in Japan was 5 litres. In 2000, this had risen to 75 litres per capita.[ix]
- Australian dairy exports roughly 1/2 its production.[x]
- Dairy is our country’s 3rd largest rural industry after beef and wheat, is worth $13 billion and employs 43,000 people, although we make up only 7% of the global dairy trade and only 2% of global production.[xi]
- Organic dairy farming is better for the environment than conventional farming, but organic dairy sales only account for just under 10% of total dairy sales in Australia.
Who owns what in the Australian dairy industry?
When the dairy industry first came to Australia, lack of refrigeration confined it to a local industry where dairy products were made on-farm and the industry was run by farmer co-operatives, who owned the farms, product manufacturing (cheese, butter etc) and transport to wholesalers and retailers.
See who owns the most popular dairy brands in the brand map below:
What does an average Australian dairy farm look like?
While most dairy brands and dairy product manufacturing is corporate-owned, the vast majority of the 6,400 dairy farms in Australia are family owned and operated, supplying raw milk to one of the industry’s milk processors or dairy product manufacturers either directly or through a cooperative. Only about 2% of Australian dairy farms are corporate owned.
There is variation in how dairy farms operate – most are ‘conventional’, some organic and some biodynamic. See Section 09 further down this page to learn how these systems differ.
How are dairy cows fed in Australia?
There are a variety of feeding systems used on dairy farms in Australia. Mostly, and unlike many dairy farms in the US for instance, Australian dairy cows are fed a combination of pasture and grain or supplementary feed and it is the ratio of these that varies[xvi]:
100% pasture-fed and varying amounts of grain/concentrate to supplement
Australian dairy cows are predominantly grass-fed (pastured), however most farmers supplement pasture with grain or other supplementary feed (eg, pellets). About 50% of farmers use more than 1 tonne of grain/supplementary feed per year.
Partial mixed ration (semi feedlots)
Another set of feeding systems uses ‘mixed ration’, a feed mix containing all forages, grains, proteins, minerals, vitamins and additives formulated to a specified nutrient concentration. It’s used to maximise the cow’s intake of nutrients in order to ‘maximise performance’, that is, to produce more milk. About 5% of farmers using this feeding system graze their cows on pasture for less than 9 months of the year and house their cows in sheds, feeding them mixed ration, the rest of the time.
Total mixed ration (total feedlots – zero grazing)
Approximately 2% of dairy farms in Australia house their cows in sheds 100% of the time. Cows are not allowed to graze on pasture. Feedlot farms give their cows mixed ration 100% of the time. The system is known as ‘total mixed ration’ and is popular in the US and Europe. In Australia, this occurs mainly in Queensland and South Australia, where 9% and 8% of dairy farms are feedlots, respectively.
While total feedlots in Australian dairy farming are still rare, there are now more semi feedlots than ever before, as farmers respond to pressures to increase milk production per cow and per farm and the number of cows per farm increases.[i]
Environmental and ethical pitfalls of dairy feedlots –
Dairy feedlot farms require a larger number of cows (in excess of 700) to be economically efficient. While proponents of dairy feedlots state that they allow for greater efficiency to be achieved, they pose many environmental and ethical issues, as do all intensive farming systems[ii]:
- Potential for substantial pollution from cow effluent if sheds are inappropriately designed, managed or located. At the same time, managing environmental sustainability is more difficult because of the greater number of cows in a smaller area. In 2006, for instance, a feedlot dairy in NSW was forced to close after locals reported terrible odour and effluent-related pollution.[iii]
- Dependence on irrigation, which will become an increasingly alarming issue as drought and climate change continues to impact natural water supplies.
- Dependence on heavy fuelled machinery to cut and collect pasture and other forages and transport to housing shed.
- Farms are required to purchase and store at least 12-months forage supply in advance, which may require chemical treatment to prevent infestation by pests, such as the case in high-volume grain silos.
- Cows are confined to indoor sheds, have less space per cow and are never allowed to graze on pasture outdoors, restricting their natural behaviour. One farm in Victoria, for example, houses over 1,000 cows in a six-row shed that measures 232m by 34.8m.[iv]
- Cows are more prone to ill-health, including mastitis (a painful condition of the udder), because they are concentrated in larger groups in a smaller area.
- Feedlot sheds are generally gravel-based, which means cows spend long hours (if not their entire ‘careers’) standing on hard flooring. This promotes lameness, a painful foot problem (see Section 07 below).
- Organic and biodynamic dairy farms are prohibited from using feedlot systems, so to avoid feedlot dairy, buy certified organic/biodynamic products.
What are the main ethical concerns surrounding dairy farming?
Bobby calves and the ethical issues surrounding them are an inevitable result of a system that promises year-round supply of milk.
In order to produce milk, cows must give birth to a calf once a year, meaning that cows are impregnated annually. Bobby calves are ‘calves produced by dairy cows on the farm, less than 30 days old and not with their mothers’. Bobby calves are considered ‘surplus’ because they are not required for the milking herd. Most farms separate the bobby calves from their mothers within twelve hours of birth and send their bobby calves for sale or slaughter within a week of birth. This applies to all male calves and around three quarters of female calves. Each year, around 700,000 of these bobby calves are destined for slaughter. Bobby calves can be sold and reared for veal, processed for hides for leather and/or for by-products for the pharmaceutical industry. Female bobby calves can also be reared and exported to dairy farms overseas.[i]
The bobby calf issue applies to both conventional and organic systems, although some farms -particularly smaller organic and biodynamic farms – choose to rear bobby calves on the farm until they are a few months or even a few years old. This is not a common trend since it is currently uneconomical for most farms to maintain bobby calves on farm. Organic Dairy Farmers Australia, a small farmer cooperative, have set their own standards for managing bobby calves to ensure bobby calves are treated as humanely as possible from birth to slaughter.
Some farmers induce calving of cows so that all calves in a pregnant herd are born within the desired timeframe. The RSPCA is opposed to induced calving for this purpose because of:
- An increased chance of a calf being born weak and needing to be euthanised by a blow to the head.
- An increased risk for maternal death due to infection caused by retained foetal membrane.
- An increased risk of mastitis and metabolic diseases for the cow.[iii] [iv]
Dairy Australia is developing guidelines to help farmers reduce the use of induced calving on their farms.
Mastitis – inflammation of the cow’s udder – is a serious animal welfare issue as it cause severe pain and discomfort and in more severe cases even death. It’s caused by bacteria or by injury and affects around 10-15% of dairy cows in the Australian dairy herd. Cows with poor nutrition or on farms with poor hygiene practices are more likely to develop mastitis.[v] Mastitis can be difficult to detect at the early stages and so is more likely to progress to more serious stages on farms with a less ‘hands-on’ approach, such as larger-scale farms.
A painful condition of cows’ feet that causes a cow to eat less and lie down more, lameness is mainly caused by cows having to walk long distances (from paddock to milking shed, for instance) or from having to stand for long periods of time on concrete floors (in milking sheds or feedlots). The soles of the feet become worn out and bruised, causing suffering and distress. Some farms address this issue by laying rubber matting on some areas of their concrete flooring.
Many dairy farmers remove the horn bud of calves in order to reduce the risk of injury to other cows and farm workers later on. The procedure is performed by applying heat. Farmers aren’t required to use anaesthetic to perform the procedure, which causes pain, stress and discomfort to the young calves.
What are the environmental impacts of dairy farming in Australia?
Dairy farming affects the environment in a number of significant ways and so research is under way to develop methods to reduce these impacts. However, at the end of the day the most important factor determining the overall environmental impact of dairy (the level of greenhouse gas emissions, in particular) is the amount of milk produced – the more milk produced, the more impact/emissions.[i] This is a particular problem since dairy farming in Australia continues to intensify.
It’s worth nothing that using organic/biodynamic farming methods reduces overall emissions and environmental impact. See Section 09 below for more details.
Greenhouse gas emissions
It may come as a surprise that 16% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions are attributed to agriculture and dairy farming is responsible for almost 1/5 of this.[ii]
In fact, in reality these figures are likely to be higher because of the way emissions are allocated to different sectors in Australia. Indirect emissions from agriculture are currently allocated to other sectors such as transport, processing and ‘stationary energy’ (petroleum refining, electricity generation etc). So emissions from off-farm activities such as fertiliser manufacture, grain production, transport and dairy product manufacturing (bottled milk, cheese, ice cream etc), for instance, are not included. These indirect emissions probably add another 10% to the agricultural total: [iii] [iv] [v]
Dairy farms use large amounts of water to irrigate their pasture, to clean out dairy and milking sheds and to provide drinking water to the cows. In fact, dairy farming is the third biggest user of irrigated water in Australian agriculture, after livestock/grains and cotton growing.[ix] A 2004–05 audit found that Australian dairy farms used around 2.3 million megalitres of water. That’s around 12% of national water consumption.[x]
In effect, on average, Australian dairy farms use about 800 litres of irrigation water for every 1 litre of milk produced.[xi] [xii] 90% of the water used on dairy farms is used to irrigate the pasture.[xiii]
As water scarcity due to climate change becomes more severe, however, and the water resources we do have are needed to supply a growing population, farmers will need to dramatically reduce water consumption and improve water recycling if dairy farming is to be sustainable. There’s a strong link between water use and number of cows, with smaller dairies using less water.[xiv]
Soil and water health
Manure and nutrient run-off from synthetic fertilisers can affect soil health and pollute waterways if not managed properly. In fact, this is one of a dairy farm’s biggest challenges. Synthetic pesticide and herbicide use destroys microbial life important for healthy soil. Soil can also be compacted from over-grazing, which reduces the soil’s ability to grow pasture.
All dairy farms use fertilisers in order to boost pasture growth. In fact, the industry accounts for 25-30% of fertiliser use in Australia. However, conventional farms use synthetic fertilisers derived from fossil fuels, while organic and biodynamic farms use only organic fertilisers in the form of animal manure, compost and other natural preparations.Synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides damage soil in the long term
Synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides damage soil health in the long term by reducing soil’s capacity to regenerate. Over time, the soil becomes compacted and loses the microbial life and organic matter necessary to support plant growth. To read more about how synthetic chemical inputs damage soil health, visit our Organic Sceptics section here.Synthetic fertilisers are a source of greenhouse gas emissions
The fertiliser industry’s greenhouse emissions are approximately 300 million tonnes CO2 equivalents (the unit of measure used to measure emissions) per year. This is from energy use but also from direct nitrous oxide emissions.[xv] Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is the second biggest source of emissions on dairy farms.[xvi] [xvii]
What’s the difference between conventional and organic/biodynamic dairy farming?
Research shows that farming dairy cows using organic/biodynamic methods reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient loss when compared to conventional methods. Organic/biodynamic farming also sees improved soil quality and the protection of local waterways from nutrient and chemical run-off.[i] [ii] [iii]
Organic/biodynamic farming relies on fewer inputs such as grain and chemical additives because it treats the farm as a ‘closed loop’ – all nutrients (from things such as dung and urine for instance) are recycled back into the system instead of being allowed to leach into the surrounding environment where they can cause soil and water issues.
Organic/biodynamic dairy farming where cows are fed mostly pasture also produces milk of higher nutritional quality as a result of better quality pasture.
Organic dairy farms
Certified organic dairy farms adhere to strict regulations which define how animal health and welfare and environmental sustainability are managed. The use of synthetic chemicals, fertilisers and GMOs are not allowed, instead they use natural composts, manures and other preparations to improve the soil’s capacity to grow pasture (which in turn feeds the cows). Organic standards also prohibit cows being confined to a feedlot – they must have continuous access to pasture. Cows on certified organic dairy farms can only be fed certified organic feed. Organic dairy farming in Australia only accounts for a small percentage of total dairy sales:
Biodynamic dairy farms
Biodynamic farming is a specific type of organic farming that holistically views the farm (soil, plants and animals) as a self-sustaining system. Like in organics, biodynamic farming uses manures and composts but also uses very specific herbal and mineral preparations in order to improve soil and plant structure and health. Any supplementary feed given to cows in this system must be certified biodynamic. Demeter is the biodynamic certification label used in Australia.
What’s the difference between conventional and organic/biodynamic dairy farming?
|Confined to sheds||Allowed||No|
|Access to pasture||Yes, but not compulsory||Yes, at all times|
|Use of antibiotics||Yes||No. Emphasis is on preventing illness. When sick, cows are treated with natural medicines.|
|Use of growth hormones||No, banned in Australia||No|
|Use of synthetic chemicals and fertilisers on pasture||Yes||No|
|Supplementary feed has to be certified organic/biodynamic||No||Yes|
|Use of genetically modified products in feed||Allowed, strictly regulated||No|
|Bobby calf removed from mother||Yes, within 12 hours of birth||Yes, within 12 hours of birth|
|Bobby calves transported for sale||No less than 5 days after birth||No less than 5 days after birth|
|Maximum period of time between a bobby calf’s last feed and its slaughter||Up to 30 hours||Up to 30 hours|
|Productive life expectancy|
(no. of years a cow is productive on the farm, which is a good measure of its stress levels)
|3 seasons, on average||5 seasons, on average|
What can I do?
There’s no doubt that consuming dairy at the current rate comes at an environmental and ethical cost. Thankfully there are easy ways each of us can help encourage players in the dairy industry to continue finding ways to reduce dairy farming’s environmental impact and improve animal welfare:
- Use the Alt.Milk Directory to find local ethical and sustainable milk
Want to know where to buy milk and dairy products produced locally, from family-owned operations using ethical and sustainable practices? Use the Alt.Milk Directory to find products near you. You’ll be supporting small-scale family dairy farms. You’ll also find you’ll enjoy better tasting milk and dairy products. You may find you need to pay a little extra because of the smaller scale/extra labour involved, but you’ll know that the dairy farmer is getting a fair price and you’re getting a better product. Reducing your overall dairy intake can help balance your budget.
- Choose locally-produced organic/biodynamic dairy products
Buying organic/biodynamic milk, cheese and yoghurt means you’re supporting a better way of dairy farming – you’re encouraging the industry to head that way. Organic/biodynamic dairy farming works to strict standards in order to improve the health of the environment and maximise animal welfare, so you can be assured that the milk you’re consuming is healthy for you, kinder on the cow and better for the planet. You may need to pay a little extra for this type of dairy because of the extra labour involved – reducing your overall dairy intake can help balance your budget.Organic and Biodynamic certification logos to look out for:
- Ask questions
If you’re concerned about the ethical implications of dairy farming, ask the farmer about what they do to address them. All dairy farms face the same issues when it comes to bobby calves for instance, so it’s worth asking how the farm addresses these issues so that you can make an informed choice. The sort of questions to consider asking include:How do you manage the calves on your farm?Do you buy in grain or other feed to supplement the pasture? If so, what percentage?Do you use synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides on the pasture? (of course, certified organic/biodynamic farms are not allowed to use these inputs)
- Spread the word
Knowledge is power, so share what you’ve learned with your family, friends and colleagues so that together we can make a real difference.
Alt. Milk Directory
Alternatives to conventional or corporate-owned dairy brands are available in Australia right now. By choosing to buy milk and other dairy products from these producers, you’re supporting sustainably-managed farms.
12 Related Topics
Delve even further into the issues via our blog Table Talk:
Sections 02 – 06
‘Total mixed ration (total feedlots – zero grazing)’ and ‘Environmental and Ethical Pitfalls of Feedlots’ table
Section 07 – What are the ethical concerns surrounding dairy farming?
Section 08 – What are the environmental impacts of dairy farming in Australia?
Section 09 – What’s the difference between conventional and organic/biodynamic dairy farming?