Dairy in danger

Australian dairy

Milk is an integral part of the Australian coffee industry, but prolonged droughts and climate change are placing increased pressure and a greater need for support on dairy farmers.

Multiple studies, research organisations, and industry bodies have come to the consensus that by 2050, demand for coffee will double while suitable land for production will fall to half of what it is today. 

The turning point, however, will come much sooner. With no investment, World Coffee Research says 2040 will mark the fall of production, as retail price rises halt or reverse the industry’s year-on-year consumption growth.

Many in the industry have pushed to take action on this issue, whether that’s through programs, research, or raising awareness, but the threat extends beyond coffee supply.

Without milk, the Australian industry wouldn’t be able to make and sell the milk-based coffee it’s known for, which makes up roughly 80 per cent of café beverage orders according to the 2018 Square Australian Coffee Report. While the industry may be aware of the potential effect of climate change on coffee production, the same probably can’t be said for dairy production.

Peter Garratt, a dairy farmer based in Southbrook in southern Queensland, tells BeanScene his dairy farm is feeling the impact of a prolonged drought.

“We haven’t had any effective rain for about three years, which is very challenging when it comes to feeding and keeping nutrition up for a herd of dairy cows and breeding stock,” Peter says.

“Under normal conditions, you’d grow about two thirds of the nutritional needs of your milking cows on your own farm and buy the rest in the form of grain, protein meals, and other feedstock. In the last 12 months, we’ve used all of our stored reserves and had to buy in absolutely everything that the cows eat.”

He adds that while he’s been able to maintain production levels, other farmers have not been so lucky.

“Our livestock doesn’t really know what a drought is, because they’ve been provided the nutrition irrespective, which has allowed us maintain milk production at stable levels. But it’s coming at a cost. I’m buying all of the feed at the current milk price and running at a loss. Hopefully, this allows me to still be viable in the industry when we come out of the drought,” Peter says.

“The main issue is that it’s not sustainable. We can only carry the debt for so long. The long-term effect is more and more dairy farms having to close because it’s just not viable. A lot of people are making decisions to scale down their dairy [production], because they cannot buy all the feed. I haven’t done that because I’m still pretty young in the industry. If I was at a retiring age, I wouldn’t be running the same strategies I am now.”

While drought is an ongoing threat to the Australian dairy industry, there are more challenges on the horizon. 

With the Federal Government, national body Dairy Australia funded Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) research into how the dairy industry will look in 2040 as part of its Dairy Businesses for Future Climates project.

A report published in November 2016, titled ‘Climate change impacts on Australia’s dairy regions’, predicts a warmer climate will pose challenges for pasture growth, runoff into dams, viability of shade trees, managing feed, heat stress to livestock, pests, weeds, diseases, and reproduction. On the other end of the spectrum, more extreme daily rainfall increases risks for flooding, erosion, waterlogging, infrastructure, supply chains, and transport. 

Dairy Australia and the Federal Government commissioned the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) research into how the dairy industry will look in 2040 as part of its Dairy Businesses for Future Climates project.

Peter says the kind of weather uncertainty predicted in the report will weaken farmers’ ability to adapt.

“If patterns are less predictable and more extreme, we’re exposed to more risk,” Peter says. “Drought and floods are the two extremes and if we go from one to the other, there’s just as much challenge producing feed and less of an ability to cope.”

In Peter’s region of Queensland and northern New South Wales, the CSIRO predicts that by 2040, the average temperature will increase by 1°C to 2°C, with warming greatest in spring and least in autumn. Rainfall is projected to be inconsistent, but with a median decrease of five per cent. Soil moisture is predicted to decline to a range of -1 to 5 per cent in summer, -10 to 0 per cent in autumn and winter, and -6 to -4 per cent in spring. All of these factors will make it harder to grow feed.

The report analysed and projected changes in temperature and rainfall for 24 dairy farming regions across Australia under a “high emission scenario”. It found that as all sites become warmer, the dry seasons become longer and the wet seasons become shorter. Across most areas, the report projects there will be a 20 to 50 per cent increase in days over 30°C. 

Beyond this temperature threshold of 30°C, the CSIRO says dairy cattle experience heat stress, with implications for reproduction and milk yield. Peter says he’s already had to find ways to manage the heat among his herd.

“In the summertime, the cows don’t go into the pasture to graze. We’ve recognised there are issues with heat stress, walking, and feeding on paddocks without shade,” Peter says.

“We’ve built a custom-made facility for our cows where we bring all the feed to them over summer. There’s a shade roof that’s big enough to house all of them and compost bedding that gives them somewhere comfortable to lie down. It’s a vital part of a cow’s daily habit to have resting time. When she rests is when she makes milk.”

Drought conditions have reduced the total milk pool in Australia, with Dairy Australia forecasting a seven to nine per cent decrease in 2018-19 season under the year prior. If environmental changes continue to push Australian dairy production lower, Peter warns that more milk may need to be exported into the country to meet demand. He says Australia is on its way to becoming a net dairy importer, with more milk fat coming into the country than going out.

“The largest markets for fresh milk [suburbs and cities] will always have milk delivered to them first, then those further out might find that there’s not enough to go around,” Peter says.

“It’s quite a possibility that people in regional areas won’t even get the option to drink fresh Australian milk. Ultra-high temperature processed (UHT) [long life] milk might need to be brought in from New Zealand or somewhere else too far away to transfer fresh milk.”

Should this continue, it could reach a point where UHT or powdered milk becomes standard in a café setting. With customers not always aware of what products go into their café and restaurant orders, Peter says its important the middlemen make good choices on their behalf.

“I encourage all users of milk – whether that be café owners or individuals – to talk to their retailers or suppliers and make sure the real value of milk is what it should be,” Peter says.

“Dairy farmers need to see the value of our product – its freshness, quality control, and nutrition – recognised. With the level of quality produced in our country, people should be comfortable knowing they can buy and consume locally made dairy products anywhere in Australia.”

This article appears in FULL in the October 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

Send this to a friend