Implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been one of the most significant factors in northern Victoria’s dairy industry downturn, according to Cohuna dairy farmer Jodie Hay.
At a time when the Australian Dairy Plan is aiming to restore confidence and lift growth in dairying, she believes the importance of improving water policy has never been more essential.
“Twenty years ago there were 3000 Victorian dairy farmers and now there are fewer than 1000,” Mrs Hay said.
“This is partly due to ongoing trends, impacts of the millennium drought and two major dairy price crises, however the implementation of the basin plan has been a very significant factor.”
While some Victorian dairy farmers have doubled individual on-farm production, overall state production has halved.
She said her own farm business had increased the irrigated area from 125 ha to 263 ha, cow numbers have increased from 180 to 400 and milk production has peaked at 3.2 million litres — all while still using the same volume of water, 1000 Ml (around half is sourced on the temporary market).
“We have done this by modernising our irrigation system, improving infrastructure and changing from a pasture-based system to partial, and at times total, mixed ration.
“The basin plan and other poor government policy has now made this unaffordable and if Australians want to increase milk production, which is what we need to do, then affordable water must be available for dairy farms.”
Mrs Hay said in her area alone,55 dairy farmers have exited the industry in the past 12 months, which has significantly impacted the local community.
She estimated 30 000 dairy cows have gone from Cohuna in the past 12 months, meaning $120 million has been lost from local business and the economy.
“You only have to look at the rural towns across northern Victoria and southern NSW to see the challenges faced in the farming community are having a huge effect.
“And it has a snowball effect, with the remaining dairy farmers at risk of losing services for their businesses as the mass exodus continues.”
She said remaining irrigators were burdened with the cost of running a reduced system while investors, speculators and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder contribute very little in comparison.
“We have built the world’s most modern irrigation system in our region, but dairy farmers and food producers can no longer afford to put water through it; effectively, the district is full of stranded assets.
“The basin plan has been developed too quickly for businesses to adapt, and the steadfast refusal of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and governments to be flexible and adaptive — as was promised by politicians — is causing social and economic carnage.”
She said the development of large permanent plantings and new green-site irrigation regions in the lower Murray had led to constraint issues and environmental damage, especially around the Barmah Choke.
“All we can do is hope that our politicians wake up and fix this mess before it is too late.”