The Australian dairy industry makes an important contribution to the Australian economy. It accounted for around 8 per cent ($4.3 billion) of the gross value of agricultural production and around 7 per cent ($3.0 billion) of agricultural export income in 2015–16.
The structure of the dairy industry has changed markedly over the past 30 years, driven by a range of factors including changing world dairy product markets, prolonged drought, the discontinuation of regulated sourcing and pricing of drinking milk in 2000, and cessation of support of manufacturing milk prices through the domestic market support scheme.
The results below are for farms included in the Australian Dairy Industry Survey (ADIS). The ADIS is funded by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
Australian dairy regions
Farm financial performance
Authors: Aruni Weragoda and Dale Ashton
- Average farm cash income of dairy farms is projected to decline by 16 per cent in 2016–17 to an average of $105,000 per farm. This reflects lower farmgate milk prices and reduced average milk production per farm.
- Reduced fodder expenditure is projected to result in lower average farm cash costs in most dairy farming regions in 2016–17. Lower hay and feed grain prices, favourable seasonal conditions in spring and early summer, increased availability of irrigation water in northern Victoria and reduced dairy cow numbers are all expected to reduce fodder expenditure in 2016–17.
- In 2016–17 average farm cash income is projected to increase in the Subtropical, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania regions.
- Average farm cash income is projected to fall in the Murray, Gippsland, Western Victoria and South Australia regions in 2016–17.
Farm cash income and profit
Australian dairy farm incomes can fluctuate significantly from year to year. This largely reflects changes in world prices for traded dairy products, the effects of varying seasonal conditions on milk production and the cost of farm inputs.
Average farm cash income of dairy farms declined from around $156,780 per farm in 2014–15 to around $125,100 in 2015–16. Farm cash income fell in all Australian dairy regions except the Subtropical (subtropical New South Wales and Queensland), New South Wales and Western Australia regions, reflecting lower milk prices (Table 1).
Table 1 Farm cash income, dairy farms, by region, 2014–15 to 2016–17
average per farm
|Total cash receipts||$||786,620 ||766,800||706,000|
|Total cash costs||$||629,840 ||641,700||602,000|
|Farm cash income||$||156,780 ||125,100||105,000|
|Farm business profit||$||63,110 ||–10,200||–48,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||$||3.2 ||1.3||0.3|
|Total cash receipts||$||554,580 ||592,500||621,000|
|Total cash costs||$||465,170 ||455,900||457,000|
|Farm cash income||$||89,410 ||136,600||164,000|
|Farm business profit||$||–9,570 ||58,300||34,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||1.2 ||2.8||2.0|
|New South Wales|
|Total cash receipts||$||961,680 ||1,031,700||968,000|
|Total cash costs||$||753,630 ||816,000||748,000|
|Farm cash income||$||208,040 ||215,800||220,000|
|Farm business profit||$||105,080 ||90,300||57,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||3.6 ||3.1||2.3|
|Total cash receipts||$||766,020 ||752,700||633,000|
|Total cash costs||$||608,420 ||613,700||500,000|
|Farm cash income||$||157,600 ||139,000||133,000|
|Farm business profit||$||56,520 ||–33,100||–30,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||3.3 ||0.4||0.3|
|Total cash receipts||$||641,430 ||602,500||557,000|
|Total cash costs||$||540,150 ||535,000||537,000|
|Farm cash income||$||101,280 ||67,500||19,000|
|Farm business profit||$||19,120 ||–69,000||–116,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||2.4 ||0.1||–1.0|
|Total cash receipts||$||822,170 ||761,600||705,000|
|Total cash costs||$||617,500 ||653,900||644,000|
|Farm cash income||$||204,670 ||107,800||61,000|
|Farm business profit||$||123,960 ||–16,900||–90,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||4.5 ||1.3||–0.7|
|Total cash receipts||$||936,390 ||903,500||851,000|
|Total cash costs||$||790,120 ||771,800||741,000|
|Farm cash income||$||146,270 ||131,700||111,000|
|Farm business profit||$||10,570 ||18,200||–70,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||2.2 ||2.1||0.1|
|Total cash receipts||$||1,258,270 ||1,428,200||1,443,000|
|Total cash costs||$||1,021,470 ||1,094,000||1,106,000|
|Farm cash income||$||236,810 ||334,300||337,000|
|Farm business profit||$||152,980 ||201,200||158,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||2.8 ||3.4||2.7|
|Total cash receipts||$||1,162,600 ||1,030,500||958,000|
|Total cash costs||$||940,850 ||896,600||818,000|
|Farm cash income||$||221,750 ||133,900||140,000|
|Farm business profit||$||112,620 ||–700||–33,000|
|Rate of return (excl. capital appreciation)||%||4.1 ||1.8||1.3|
p Preliminary estimate.
y Provisional estimate.
Source: ABARES Australian Dairy Industry Survey
Farm cash income of dairy farms at the national level is projected to decline by around 16 per cent in 2016–17 to an average of around $105,000 per farm. This is as a result of an expected decline in total cash receipts despite lower total cash costs (Figure 1). The projected farm cash income of dairy farms in 2016–17 is around 13 per cent less than the 10-year average to 2015–16 in real terms.
Farm business profit is a measure of long-term profitability. It accounts for capital depreciation, payments for family labour and changes in inventories of livestock, fodder and grain held on a farm.
At the national level farm business profit fell on average from $63,110 per farm in 2014–15 to an estimated –$10,200 per farm in 2015–16. In 2016–17 farm business profit is projected to fall further to around –$48,000 per farm.
Negative farm business profit means a farm has not covered the costs of unpaid family labour or set aside funds to replace depreciating farm assets. Many farms occasionally record negative farm business profits as their incomes fluctuate. However, ongoing low or negative profits affect long-term viability because farms have reduced capacity to invest in newer and more efficient technologies. Over the 10 years to 2015–16, the proportion of dairy farms recording negative farm business profits averaged 51 per cent a year. In 2016–17 the proportion of farms recording negative farm business profit is projected to be 66 per cent (Figure 2).
Total cash receipts
At the national level, total receipts for dairy farms fell by around 3 per cent in 2015–16, on average, largely because of lower milk prices. The fall in prices followed a step-down in milk payments to dairy farmers by major dairy processors, particularly in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and southern New South Wales. A fall in milk receipts because of lower prices was partly offset by increased milk production in 2015–16. Higher average milk yields per cow more than offset reductions in the number of cows milked. Many dairy farms began reducing or selling off dairy herds in response to the fall in farmgate milk prices.
Average total cash receipts at the national level are projected to decline further in 2016–17 to around $557,000 per farm (Table 1), largely driven by lower milk receipts and a fall in receipts from the sale of dairy cattle. On average, milk receipts are projected to decline by around 6 per cent because of reduced milk production per farm and despite a small increase in milk prices.
Total cash costs
Expenditure on fodder, interest, repairs and maintenance, fertiliser and hired labour accounted for the largest shares of total cash costs between 2000–01 and 2016–17. Expenditure on fodder accounted for nearly one-third of total cash costs over the period (Figure 3).
Average total cash costs for Australian dairy farms increased by 2 per cent to around $641,700 per farm in 2015–16 (Table 1). This was mainly because of higher fodder purchases as seasonal conditions deteriorated in many regions. Average total cash costs are projected to fall by around 6 per cent in 2016–17. This is largely because above average seasonal conditions will reduce expenditure on fodder and irrigation water. However, this will be partly offset by increases in other major costs.
Performance by region
In 2016–17 farm cash income is projected to increase in the Subtropical, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania regions (Figure 4). Farm cash income is projected to increase by 2 per cent in the New South Wales region and 4 per cent in the Tasmania region. This is the result of lower total cash costs and despite a reduction in total cash receipts. Farm cash income is projected to increase in 2016–17 by 20 per cent in the Subtropical region and by 1 per cent in the Western Australia region, with higher cash receipts being partly offset by slightly higher cash costs.
A projected decline in farm cash income in the Murray, Gippsland, Western Victoria and South Australia regions in 2016–17 is mainly a result of reduced milk production per farm in those regions. This is despite expected higher prices and lower total cash costs.
Total cash receipts
Milk receipts increased in 2015–16 in the Subtropical, New South Wales and Western Australia regions because of increases in average milk production per farm and milk prices.
Total cash receipts are projected to fall in all regions in 2016–17 except the Subtropical and Western Australia regions. In the Subtropical region, total cash receipts are projected to increase by 5 per cent in 2016–17. This is largely driven by increased milk production per farm and higher receipts from the sale of dairy cattle. Total cash receipts are projected to increase by 1 per cent in the Western Australia region in 2016–17, with lower milk receipts being offset by increased receipts from the sale of beef and dairy cattle.
Lower milk receipts because of reduced milk production per farm and reduced dairy cattle receipts are projected to lead to a decline in total cash receipts in the Gippsland, Murray, New South Wales, Western Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania regions in 2016–17.
Total cash costs
In 2015–16 total cash costs rose in the New South Wales, Murray, Western Victoria and Western Australia regions. Total cash costs declined in the Subtropical, Gippsland and South Australia regions because increased expenditure on fodder was partly offset by reduced expenditure on other major cost items.
On average, total cash costs are projected to decrease in all dairy regions in 2016–17 except the Subtropical, Gippsland and Western Australia regions.
In the Subtropical region, a small increase is expected in expenditure on fertiliser, fodder and fuel in 2016–17. In the Gippsland and Western Australia regions, total cash costs are projected to rise marginally in 2016–17 because increased expenditure on hired labour, fertiliser, fuel and interest payments will be largely offset by reduced expenditure on fodder.
Rate of return
The average rate of return (excluding capital appreciation) of Australian dairy farms decreased from 3.2 per cent in 2014–15 to 1.3 per cent in 2015–16, reflecting reduced farm incomes. Average returns are projected to decline further in 2016–17 to around 0.3 per cent nationally (Figure 5).
Figure 6 shows the performance of dairy farms varied in 2015–16. In 2015–16 around one-fifth of dairy farms recorded a rate of return (excluding capital appreciation) of between –2.5 per cent and 0 and one-quarter of farms recorded a rate of return (excluding capital appreciation) of between 0 and 2.5 per cent. In 2015–16 slightly fewer farms (39 per cent) had a rate of return of more than 2.5 per cent, compared with 2014–15 (47 per cent). This reflects overall weaker farm financial performance in 2015–16. Similarly, slightly more farms recorded lower rates of return (below 2.5 per cent) in 2015–16 (13 per cent) than in 2014–15 (8 per cent).
Variation in rates of return
The long-term performance of farm businesses is determined by the level and variability of profits.
Figure 7 shows the variation in the average farm rate of return to capital (excluding capital appreciation) between 2000–01 and 2015–16. The variation in returns reflects changes over time in average seasonal conditions, commodity prices and the cost of farm inputs recorded in each region. Individual farms are likely to have experienced different variations in returns over the period, depending on seasonal conditions and commodity prices that were realised and other farm-specific factors such as enterprise mix and the skill of the manager.
The annual average rate of return for Australian dairy farms was positive from 2000–01 to 2016–17 except in 2002–03 and 2006–07. However, average rates of return by region have been more varied between 2000–01 and 2016–17.
Figure 7 shows that dairy farmers in the Western Australia region recorded the lowest variability in rates of return over the period. Dairy farmers in the Tasmania region recorded the greatest overall variation in returns.
Farm debt and equity
Authors: Aruni Weragoda and Dale Ashton
Trends in average debt per farm
Debt is an important source of funds for farm investment and ongoing working capital for many dairy farms. At the national level, from 2000–01 to 2016–17 average debt of dairy farms trended upwards in real terms, mainly resulting from an increase in average farm size. The increase in average debt per farm was modest relative to the increase in average cash receipts per farm (Figure 8). Average debt of dairy farms for 2016–17 is projected to fall by around 6 per cent to $900,000 per farm.
In ABARES farm surveys, debt is recorded by its main purpose. However, because some loans cover a range of purposes, estimates of debt by main purpose provide a guide only.
Over the 3 years to 2015–16 land purchases accounted for the largest proportion of dairy farm debt, around 46 per cent on average (Figure 9). Ongoing working capital accounted for 31 per cent of average total debt.
Borrowing for ongoing working capital increased by around 43 per cent in 2015–16. Dry seasonal conditions in many regions led to weaker financial performance and higher fodder expenditure, which together increased working capital debt.
Since the mid-2000s average debt per dairy farm has increased at a faster rate than farm equity because debt levels have increased with increased average herd size and milk production (Martin, Shafron & Phillips 2017). The average equity ratio of dairy farms at the national level declined from 85 per cent in 2004–05 to an estimated 79 per cent in 2015–16. This was as a consequence of declining land values and high levels of new investment on large dairy operations in some regions, mostly in Tasmania, western Victoria and South Australia.
An estimated 28 per cent of dairy farms have an equity ratio greater than 90 per cent. On average these farms are relatively small. A further 50 per cent of farms have an equity ratio of 70 to 90 per cent. The remaining 23 per cent of dairy farms have an equity ratio less than 70 per cent. These are relatively large farms with higher than average milk production (Table 2).
Table 2 Farm performance, by equity ratio, dairy farms, Australia, 2015–16
average per farm
|Equity ratio ||Unit ||More than 90% ||70 to 90% ||Less than 70% |
|Proportion of farms||%||28||50||23|
|Total area operated||ha||277||292||398|
|Number of dairy cows mated||no.||183||250||296|
|Total milk production||l||1,101,000||1,447,000||1,762,000|
|Total cash receipts||$||637,000||747,000||928,000|
|Milk receipts as a proportion of total receipts||%||81||86||84|
Source: ABARES Australian Dairy Industry Survey
The long-term viability of a farm is affected by its capacity to service debt. The servicing of debt consists of making interest payments and paying down the principal. The proportion of farm receipts spent on interest payments is a useful indicator of short-term capacity to service debt.
From 2000–01 to 2015–16 the proportion of farm receipts needed to fund interest payments fluctuated around an average of 8 per cent. The ratio of interest paid to total cash receipts for 2016–17 is projected to be around 7 per cent (Figure 10). Despite increased average debt, reduced interest rates and increasing cash receipts over the 8 years to 2016–17 resulted in a decline in the ratio of interest paid to total cash receipts.
At the national level, in 2015–16 around 45 per cent of dairy farms reduced their average total debt (Figure 11). An estimated 45 per cent of dairy farms increased their debt on average in 2015–16, mainly to cover ongoing working capital expenditure. A further 9 per cent of farms had no debt at 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2016. The remaining 1 per cent of farms had no change in debt.
Debt and equity, by region
Debt and equity on dairy farms varied significantly by region. Dairy farms in Tasmania recorded the highest farm business debt on average. This was a result of the relatively high proportion of large farms and recent expansion in dairy production in that region (Figure 12).
From 2013–14 to 2015–16 land purchases debt accounted for the largest share of average debt of dairy farms in most regions, followed by ongoing working capital debt.
The lowest average equity ratios were recorded in Tasmania, reflecting rapid expansion in the industry since the mid-2000s. Since 2010–11 equity ratios in Tasmania have increased (Figure 13). Average equity ratios have trended downwards in all other regions.
Distribution of dairy farms, by debt and equity
Table 3 shows the distribution of dairy farms by debt and equity ratio at 30 June 2016. An estimated 9 per cent of all dairy farms in Australia held no debt. A further 6 per cent of farms held less than $100,000 in debt. An estimated 31 per cent of dairy farms had debt in excess of $1 million. An estimated 28 per cent of dairy farms had an equity ratio of more than 90 per cent in 2015–16 and 23 per cent had an equity ratio of less than 70 per cent.
Table 3 Distribution of farms, by farm business debt and equity ratio, dairy farms, Australia, 30 June 2016
|Equity ratio ||No debt||Less than $100,000||$100,000 to less than $250,000||$250,000 to less than $500,000||$500,000 to less than $1m||$1m to less than $2m||More than $2m||Total|
|More than 90%||9||6||9||3||1||0||0||28|
|80 to less than 90%||0||0||0||4||14||4||1||23|
|70 to less than 80%||0||0||0||7||11||8||1||27|
|60 to less than 70%||0||0||0||0||3||4||3||10|
|Less than 60%||0||0||0||0||1||5||6||13|
Note: Row and column totals may not sum to 100 due to rounding.
Source: ABARES Australian Dairy Industry Survey
Farm capital and investment
Authors: Aruni Weragoda and Dale Ashton
Total farm capital
From 2000–01 to 2015–16 the gross value of Australian dairy production increased by 17 per cent in real terms to an estimated $4.3 billion. Over the same period the number of dairy farms declined by 39 per cent and, consequently, the gross value of production per farm increased.
Investment in farm capital is important for the ongoing development of the Australian dairy industry. New and more efficient technologies are important for farm productivity, and investments in land, fixed improvements, and plant and equipment are key drivers of dairy farmers’ capacity to generate farm outputs.
The total value of capital for Australian dairy farms increased by 40 per cent in real terms from 2000–01 to 2015–16, although the number of dairy farms declined (Figure 14). On a per farm basis, total capital increased by 133 per cent to around $4.5 million per farm in 2015–16, largely because of increasing average farm sizes and appreciation in land values.
Land accounted for an average of 75 per cent of total capital per farm from 2011–12 to 2015–16 (Figure 15). Livestock accounted for a further 15 per cent of total capital, and plant and equipment accounted for about 10 per cent.
Return on land
ABARES uses two rates of return to farm capital—rate of return excluding capital appreciation and rate of return including capital appreciation. Rate of return is defined as farm profit expressed as a percentage of total capital. Because land is the largest component of total farm capital, it plays a key role in determining changes to total farm returns over the medium to longer term.
Figure 16 shows the average value of land and fixed improvements per hectare. In real terms, the average value for dairy farms increased by 76 per cent from 2000–01 to 2015–16, with an average annual return from land appreciation of 3.9 per cent. From 1990–91 to 1999–2000 the average annual return from land appreciation was –1.6 per cent before stronger demand for farmland led to sharp increases in land values. From 2000–01 to 2006–07 the average annual return from land appreciation was 12.1 per cent before declining to an average of –2.4 per cent for 2007–08 to 2015–16.
New farm investment
Most farmers make new investments each year to add to the existing capital stock or to replace capital items that have reached the end of their useful life. Farm investments are usually made with longer-term outcomes in mind and based on expected returns over the life of the investment.
On average, 59 per cent of dairy farms each year made additions to their total capital over the 10 years to 2015–16 (Figure 17). The average amount invested each year by those making capital additions fluctuated around an average of $212,000, broadly in line with movements in farm cash incomes.
In 2015–16 an estimated 67 per cent of dairy farms made capital additions at an average of $228,000 per farm.
Figure 18 shows the average proportion of dairy farmers that made capital additions each year from 2011–12 to 2015–16 and the average capital addition in three categories—land purchases, plant and equipment, and buildings and structures. Land is the biggest component of capital additions each year, although only 10 per cent of dairy farmers bought land each year on average between 2011–12 and 2015–16. Average expenditure on land for those making purchases was around $860,000 per farm.
Around 54 per cent of all dairy farmers made additions to plant and equipment each year over the period, at an average of around $64,000 per farm. Around 8 per cent of dairy farmers made additions to buildings and structures. Expenditure on these capital additions averaged around $129,000 per farm.
Farm capital and investment by region
In most dairy regions, trends in farm capital and number of farms follow the national trends. The three Victorian regions have the most influence on national trends because those regions in total make up two-thirds of Australia’s milk production.
The number of dairy farms fell in all regions, although the decline in the Western Victoria region was relatively small at around 3 per cent from 2000–01 to 2015–16 (Figure 19). Over the same period the total value of capital of dairy farms in the Western Victoria region increased by 76 per cent in real terms (Figure 20), accounting for around 19 per cent of the total capital value of dairy farms in 2015–16.
From 2000–01 to 2015–16 the number of dairy farms fell by 41 per cent in the Murray region and by 15 per cent in the Gippsland region. Despite these declines, the total value of capital increased in real terms by 47 per cent in the Murray region and 114 per cent in the Gippsland region. The Murray region accounted for around 22 per cent of the total capital value of Australian dairy farms in 2015–16 and the Gippsland region accounted for around 24 per cent.
The number of dairy farms in the New South Wales region fell by 44 per cent but the total capital value of dairy farms in the region rose by 25 per cent in real terms, accounting for around 9 per cent of the total capital value of Australian dairy farms in 2015–16.
In Tasmania, the total value of capital nearly doubled in real terms over the same period and the number of dairy farms declined by around 34 per cent. Tasmania accounted for around 9 per cent of the total capital value of Australian dairy farms in 2015–16.
The total capital value of dairy farms in South Australia and Western Australia declined between the mid 2000s and 2015–16, mainly as a result of declining dairy farm numbers and reduced total area used for dairy farming. However, average total capital per farm increased in both regions and Western Australia recorded the largest average capital per farm of all regions, at around $9.4 million in 2015–16. South Australia and Western Australia each accounted for around 5 per cent of the total capital value of Australian dairy farms in 2015–16.
From 2000–01 to 2015–16 the total capital value of dairy farms in the Subtropical region also declined, by around 35 per cent, due to a substantial decline in the number of dairy farms (72 per cent). The region accounted for around 8 per cent of the total capital value of Australian dairy farms in 2015–16.
The proportion of dairy farms adding new investment over the five years to 2015–16 was largest in Western Australia, Western Victoria and Tasmania. The proportion of dairy farms buying land was highest in Tasmania and Western Victoria over the period (Figure 21).
Agricultural productivity estimates are available for the dairy industry.
Martin, P, Shafron, W & Phillips, P 2017, ‘Farm performance: broadacre and dairy farms, 2014–15 to 2016–17’,
Agricultural commodities: March quarter 2017, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Canberra.
Data and other resources