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.

Dining on data is good for the bottom (line)

Farm planning meeting

Farm management meeting


Depending on how you look at it, dairy farmers are very trusting, natural exhibitionists or visionaries. I say this because I have always been amazed by how readily we share the most confidential of our information with our counterparts – right down to the profitability of our farms per litre, hectare and even per cow.

I have just joined the ranks of these exhibitionists by submitting our farm’s data to Frank Tyndall, who oversees a project called Tracker that benchmarks dairy farms across all sorts of productivity measures.

The results offer an incredible amount of information that require some very thoughtful interpretation. Great fodder for discussion with our farm consultant, Matt Harms.

Unsurprisingly, we have achieved a lowly rank. Our dryland (or “rain-fed” if you’re feeling optimistic) farm is being compared to those in the Macallister Irrigation District (MID), where water when you need it is pretty much assured. We have just come out of an impossibly wet year that has depressed production in the growing season and, now, the dry has set in.

We may end up winning the wooden spoon but I’m not concerned. The race here is to a greater discipline when it comes to farm management, which should reap efficiency dividends and make our farm more resilient.

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.