Even parts of the state that aren’t experiencing dire seasonal conditions are being impacted by the drought, and it’s causing many dairy farmers to cull portions of their herds.
Dairy Livestock Services auctioneer Brian Leslie has seen an influx of dairy cattle being put on the market in recent weeks, which he credits to rising grain, hay and water prices.
“There’s not really a drought in Western Victoria and in some parts of Gippsland, but they’ve been forced to pay the same high prices for grain, hay and water,” Mr Leslie said.
“While some dairy farmers might have grass, they are reliant on grain inputs too, so their cost of production is getting very high.”
Charles L King & Co auctioneer Brock Fletcher, Echuca, had a phone call recently from a dairy farmer in tears, who had decided to sell her entire herd.
“She said she couldn’t afford to keep operating, so I’m selling her whole herd next week,” Mr Fletcher said.
“And there’s plenty of farmers having to do that.”
He estimated he had seen an increase of dairy cattle on the market since August.
“It started with older cows, with people cutting back, but no one wants to buy the older cows. It’s only the younger cows that are selling, so we began to see entire herds being sold,” he said.
He said while the conditions were not unprecedented, they had come on quicker than previous droughts.
“We came off a good year last year, so there was a lot of fodder, but I think farmers underestimated how much fodder was going north, and then all of a sudden the hay and grain prices went up dramatically,” he said.
He said the widespread cullings were going to have a “massive” impact on the industry long-term.
“With all the female cattle being killed, were’ going to eventually see processors and abattoirs close. As cows only have one calf, it will take some time to rebuild,” he said.
Mr Leslie agreed, saying the mass dairy herd culling was going to have a big impact on the number of cows milked in the future.
“When the drought breaks, dairy farmers will only have their performing cows, and that will put a real test on numbers, which will lead to a milk shortage and with that, a price increase,” he said.
He said there was no one solution to dairy farmers in tough conditions, but reiterated the importance of planning.
And planning is exactly what Shepparton farmer Laurie Clark is in the middle of.
Mr Clark said his issues were budgetary, not operational, and he was deciding whether he culled entirely, or by 60 per cent, or at least 25pc.
“At a 25pc cull, that would be based on a 12-month cull, and the idea would be to identify the cows that aren’t performing so we don’t spend money on them,” he said.
He said he had probably had one of his best ever seasons, but the cost of irrigation had been crippling.
Wyuna dairy farmer Phil Blain had already destocked 10pc of his herd.
“We just had too many; I culled anything that wasn’t pregnant or that was too old,” Mr Blain said.
“Once the grain prices went up six months ago, we haven’t been able to consolidate.”
He said this reflected just “one disaster after the other”, after battling through low milk prices in recent years.