How big are Australian dairy farms? And what is a “mega dairy”?

There’s a lot of talk of factory farming at the moment. Animal activists use the phrase to shock us and judging by the comments in response to John Bunting’s Journal, average US dairy farmers are afraid of being overtaken by “mega dairies”.

While Australia’s dairy farms are getting bigger, I haven’t heard of anything on the scale discussed by our American counterparts, so I thought I’d ask the gurus at Dairy Australia for the official stats.

It turns out that the vast majority of Australian dairy farms are still family-owned. Only 2 per cent are corporate. This does not surprise me. As leading farm consultant John Mulvany points out, corporate investors demand higher returns on their assets than the meagre 1 or 2 per cent that most dairy farms achieve. Second, paid labour is both expensive and inflexible in this highly volatile industry. This bothers me because it assumes that farm families should not expect the same standard of living as their employees.

The average Australian dairy herd has 220 milkers and here is the breakdown of herds across the spectrum:

small

medium

large

x-large

xx-large

total

% farms

26%

38%

24%

6%

5%

100%

% milk

8%

27%

31%

13%

20%

100%

What’s perhaps even more interesting (and heartening) are the definitions of size.

Small: Herd size of less than 150

Medium: Herd size between 150 – 300

Large: Herd size between 301 – 500

X-large: Herd size between 501 – 700

XX-large: Herd size greater than 700

So, when the US talks of mega-dairies milking thousands and thousands of cows, Aussies talk of XXL dairies milking more than 700.

9 thoughts on “How big are Australian dairy farms? And what is a “mega dairy”?

  1. A nice description of the scale of the industry that I heard a few years ago was that Dairy in Australia would be a ‘mosaic’ of size and styles of operation. The concern had been expressed by some that the corporate farm would kill the family farm. Not true for the reasons you provided above. Due to the range of end markets for our product and climatic, geographic and differing circumstances of producers, we will have a wide variety of types of farms into the future. And cattle get exceptionally well looked after right across the spectrum, scale isn’t linked to capacity to care!

    • You’re right, of course, Ron. Even 50 years ago, our very average Australian dairy farm of today would have been considered a “mega-dairy”. And we love the cows just as much.

  2. Great piece. Here in my part of the US, Federal Milk Marketing Order One (encompassing several states of the Northeast) we have about 13,000 farms, average of 100 cows). However, hidden in the numbers are a few very large farms. For example, in my area, we have one farm milking 4,500 cows. That farm secures a huge volume premium well above the rest of us. One of the largest farms in the US is Fair Oaks Farm, milking 32,000 cows. The fear of the average smaller dairy farmer is that these behemoth farms are developing greater and greater say in US dairy policy making. For example, at the dairy antitrust hearings held in 2010, the largest farms were the only farms selected to present, leaving the rest of us to fight for a microphone. While the largest farms claim they would be happy to see government get out of milk, they jumped up demanding more federal government help in bringing in more Mexican workers. The smaller farms, on the other hand, largely prefer local workers who are often neighbors or people with technical degrees in the area.
    In NY, we are also waiting to see if a proposed 72,000 beef cow facility will be permitted. It will be located on a Great Lake so that grain can be barged in from the Midwest, and meat will be sold in NY as “local”. Plenty of rural towns once blessed with numerous small farms now stand empty here. We are wondering if we will see even more “dead” Main Streets in rural NY.

  3. You make a lot of fascinating comments, NY Farmer and I’m always an interested follower of your insights on Twitter. Please keep us up to date and good luck to your communities (both farming and rural).

  4. i am very interested to know how often they milk with 32000 cows and how do they feed and what type and how big are there dairies

    • Kevin, There is a rather large 32,000 cow project in the growing stages in vietnam? at present. The very large dairy farms are run much the same as the smaller ones, just more efficient believe it or not. I am manager of 500 cow parture based dairy, TMR Dec-April. Progressive boss, all the latest practices. Been on Dairy tours to the USA. Same as us, just bigger. Still have dramas, just different ones 🙂

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