Episode 175. Dairying, the Canary in the Mine

This is the World Organic News for the week ending the 1st of July 2019.

Jon Moore reporting!

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

This week we begin with another horror story from the Australian dairy industry entitled: ‘The end is near’: Dairy farmers pushed to the brink from 2GB. Now for our Austrlain listeners, I’d like to say I do not listen to that particular radio station, ever but the story popped up in my searches so bare with me. For those listeners outside of Australia 2GB is an AM radio talkback station with a huge rightwing bias. Back to the story.


Australian dairy farmers say they’re finally on the edge of extinction after almost a decade of the major supermarkets’ milk price war.

Farmers say the cost of production is greater than what they’re receiving for their milk.

The NSW Farmers’ Dairy Committee Chairman Colin Thompson tells Alan Jones the introduction of dollar-a-litre milk nine years ago was the beginning of the end.

End Quote

Dollar-a-litre milk is but the symptom rather than the cause of the dairy industry’s problems.


A little background will be useful. Dairying, as it is practiced, is an intensive industrialised game. The old story of “Get big or get out!” ruled supreme. This is bad enough with corn and soybean but it is unconscionable when it comes to animal agriculture. The horrors of chicken sheds, pig units and cattle feedlots all flow from this idea. More often than not, for a quick upscaling, “getting big”, requires debt. Debt then traps the farmers into the new system. When it comes down to living with questionable animal cruelty options or losing the farm, the animals miss out. After a couple of decades, this became, sadly, normalised across much of the agricultural sector.

The industry bodies repeated the usual platitudes: “People demand cheap food, the animals are kept in cages for their own safety” and so on. We have normalised diminishing returns for farmers and cruelty for much stock.

Now to the dairy industry. I’ll be talking at the extremes to some extent and definitely not painting all dairy farmers with the same brush so please bear this in mind.

In dairying, to get big or get out required much larger milking sheds. This requires capital and, naturally, debt. The trap was set. Larger herds make management more complicated. Health issues are harder to spot, more routine milk testing is required. Once the system is in place, breeding for more milk output per unit, see the language there?, became paramount. A Jersey will happily give 20-25 litres a day with a high butterfat content. A Holstein will give 35-45 litres with a lower butterfat content. 

Selective breeding, backcrossing and so on has the highest producing Holsteins giving upwards of 80 litres a day. This puts enormous pressure on udders and the basic bone structure of the cows. With udders that big, the cow must swing her rear legs in unnatural arcs to walk. This puts pressure on the rear feet. A cows foot is composed of two halves. With extra stretching around large udders and the increased weight and therefore footfall pressure on the feet, tears between the “toes” is not uncommon.

To overcome this and to fit within the maximum production model it was decided that cows were “wasting” huge amounts of energy and hence milk production capacity by walking in fields from one piece of fodder to another. Some were simply kept in large barns with feed troughs down the middle of the shed for the girls to eat from. Others, taking the energy wasted theory to its logical conclusion, tethered the cows to stauncheons. Yes this did and does still actually happen. It is mind boggling.

After the War

After World War Two, milk production was subsidised across much of the industrialised world. Quotas were set, business models developed, farmers had some certainty and children received milk at school. The theory being that well fed children became strong adults and strong adults would be needed to fight World War Three. That is a simplification but the underlying principles hold true. After the rationing of the war years this was considered a good thing as too much malnutrition had been suffered. 

With the rise of Thatcher and Reagan these subsided systems and quotas were removed and the “market” whatever that is, decided who would survive as milk producers. Bigger is better was the mantra. Toss into this red in tooth and claw market system, the rise of nut juices sold as milk and supermarkets setting ridiculously low prices and some producers were squeezed out of the market.

On top of all this we can add a dollop of climate change. In Australia that basically means more droughts, longer, deeper and wider droughts interspersed with periods of extreme rainfall events. The current drought and its associated increases in feed costs, demand and supply, has many dairy farmers facing the wall. 

Herds bred over many generations for local conditions are sold and dispersed. Banks foreclosing on farms and farmers. The full horror of a crash. The twin pressures of falling prices, increasing costs and climate changes are driving even the big producers to the wall. 

And The Future?

Is there any hope? 

Yes and no. Firstly, no. The producers who went big specialised in milk production. That seems obvious but a century ago many producers didn’t sell milk they produced. They sold butter or cheese or ice cream. The excess skim milk would be fed to pigs whose manure would fertilise the fields and thereby feed the cows and so on. The get big mentality was associated with specialisation. Mixed farms declined in number. Pig production became a different career path from dairying. Local, on farm production was destroyed by the economies of scale available to specialist milk producers. You can see where this heading. The more specialised the skill, the less adaptation to change is possible. Think pandas and koalas who have specialised to just one food source. All the changes in dairying have been pushing costs up and prices down because: Consumers demand cheap food. Milk is now and has been for quite awhile a commodity rather than a specialty food. The future, especially for family farmers, in this system, looks bleak. For industrialised agribusiness outfits, the future looks horrific for the cows.

Secondly, yes. Yes there is a future for dairying but it’s not in this system. People who are making a good living from dairying are doing so by specialisation. Not in the industrial sense mentioned before but in localised markets, serving specific niches and with smaller herds.

There are people specialising in one breed, anything but Holsteins, who are doing well. The Dexter is a favourite in some places as are Jerseys, Guernseys and Brown Swiss. The thing these have in common is their lower volume but higher cream and non-fat solids content. These dairies tend to specialise in cheese, yoghurt or butter production. Niche options. There are co-ops delivering non-homogenized, ie, cream on the top, milk to specific areas. It turns out people will pay extra to have good milk. 

And the dairying industry is, as the title suggests, the canary in the coal mine. Dairy farmers have suffered through the financialisation of their industry, subject to the whims of shareholder returns for supermarkets and the crushing effects of prolonged drought. Many will go under. This is a painful thing to see for I have never met an unpleasant dairyman or woman. There is something calming about being around dairy cows. There’s a slowness about them we have lost in the modern world that we must maintain. New entrants will arise. Creative solutions will be developed but the era of cheap milk is almost gone and with it many good people.

Other industries, under the same pressures, will feel the same effects. Wherever large quantities of feed need to bought in, the rising number and severity of droughts will act as catalysts for change. It gives me no joy to see the accumulated years of animal husbandry lost as farmers leave their respective industries.

We must adapt now to the reality on the ground. Smaller, it turns out, is better. Who’d have thunk it? Naturally this depends upon the soil, the rainfall and the juggling abilities of those with their feet on the soil but a brighter future can happen. We don’t need factory foods, we certainly don’t need laboratory grown meats. We do need localised food systems, where thoughtful passionate farmers aren’t crushed under debt nor driven mad by shareholder desires for cheaper foods and higher profit margins. We don’t need our food systems run by conglomerate agribusiness enterprises where profit takes precedence over animal and farmer welfare. While some people live and die by quarterly profit margins, every human is only three meals away from food riots.

We live in times of great flux, we must take what is good and ensure it makes it to the other side of this rapid change. I believe dairying is one such wonder we must take with us. 

And on that note I’ll draw this episode to a conclusion.

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

The podcasting checklists are still available over at Jon Moore Podcasting Services

Thank you for listening and I’ll be back next week.



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‘The end is near’: Dairy farmers pushed to the brink






Brown Swiss.

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