Farmers just need to…

Complete the sentence: “Farmers just need to…”

A few I’ve heard recently are:

  • “Work smarter”
  • “Be more innovative”
  • “Drive for >5% cost reductions”
  • “Scale up to meet the world’s insatiable need for protein”
  • “Don’t JUST farm. Add a few more feathers to your cap”

Most of these comments have been made quite flippantly, with little or no background knowledge of Australian dairy farming and, to be frank, they give me the irrits.

What makes me really angry, though, is when our leaders parrot the “Scale up to meet the world’s insatiable need for protein” line.

We farmers need to justify investing more money, blood, sweat and tears in growth – both to our families and our bankers. Unless farm gate prices for milk increase substantially, that’s a very difficult proposition. According to official figures, most of the state’s dairy farms have a return on investment of 1 to 3 per cent, forcing a focus on financial survival. Much higher returns can be made elsewhere with less work and far lower risk.

To those whose simplistic response is “work smarter, diversify or value-add”, let me point out some realities. Click the link to see how the average Australian dairy farmer is paid compared to dairy farmers around the world:

https://milkmaidmarian.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/figure-8-international-farmgate-milk-prices-us-per-100kg.pdf

What does this mean for a farming family like mine? We want to improve the farm, so Wayne and I are both holding down second jobs (in other words, we are not “just farming”). The plan is that these improvements will make the farm more profitable and sustainable. We are making progress but farm life is currently anything but sustainable from a personal point of view. You just can’t work this many hours forever.

Perhaps we are dullards and are just not efficient enough but I doubt it. The farm I run now bears almost no resemblance to the farm of my childhood 30 years ago. It’s the same 500 acres but we milk 50 per cent more cows and each produces around 55 per cent more milk than her ancestor did in the 1980s: a huge leap in productivity.

Although these numbers are impressive, we are far from exceptional. According to Dairy Australia, Victoria’s raw milk production peaked in 2001-02 at 7.4 billion litres – more than double the 3 billion litres produced in 1980-81. Yield per cow also increased from 3,012 litres in 1979-1980 to 5,864 litres in 2008/09.

Sadly, we are unlikely to continue to make such gains. Our brains trust, the Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries, is being savagely pruned, reducing our ability to innovate and work smart. We don’t enjoy the subsidies that support our US and European counterparts or the free trade agreement with China that advantages our Kiwi neighbours. And now, we face an estimated $7000 carbon tax cost that will nobble us even further.

The playing field is far from level and getting steeper all the time.

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