Why good news in the budget for scientists is good news for dairy farmers

Much to my relief, the word is that the federal budget has not cut spending on agricultural research and development. Yes, ag R&D funding has been steadily eroded and needs to be restored but I was almost certain it would be slashed. Earlier this year, a review of the Rural Research and Development Corporation by the Productivity Commission flagged a dramatic reduction in funding for agricultural research.

Why do I care? Because we need to farm smarter all the time in order to make a living. 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.

We achieved these gains scientifically. Thanks to Target 10 and Feeding Pastures for Profit, we make much more effective use of our pastures, while programs like “Fertilizing dairy pastures” showed us how to grow more grass with the efficient use of valuable nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen.

Today, we are learning how to cope with new challenges brought by climate change: how to keep cows cool, new more drought-resistant pastures and declining fertility.

We must also be realistic about the rise of new competitors. Developing countries including China, Mexico and the Middle East are buying record numbers of Australia’s breeding stock in an attempt to fast-track the growth of fledgling dairy industries. India is also racing to become a dairy giant.

Australian dairy farmers do not enjoy the support lavished on our northern competitors. We can compete only because we are low-cost producers.

Although declining terms of trade mean we aren’t any richer than my father was, we are still on the land – thanks to government and farmer investment in agricultural R&D.