Nutrient, land and water management

75% of farmers are now recycling water from the dairy shed.

More farmers recycling water, protecting waterways

Australian dairy farmers are committed to managing their land and the water they use responsibly. The Australian dairy industry undertook the first Sustainability Framework NRM Survey in 2015 to gather data on the work farmers are doing to maximise environmental benefits. The 2015 Survey built on the Dairying for Tomorrow (DfT) NRM Surveys undertaken in 2000, 2006 and 2012. (See

The findings of the 2015 NRM Survey reflected across the board progress in practices being undertaken on dairy farms to improve land, soil and water management.

There has been an improvement in the proportion of dairy farms with most of their waterways fenced (from 73% in 2012 to 76% in 2015). Additionally, 24% of respondents with waterways on their property have plans to undertake more fencing in future. More than half of this group will still undertake the fencing planned even if funding support for fencing is no longer available, but in many cases, the planned work would take longer than currently anticipated.

Survey data suggests that on the 59% of dairy farms using irrigation water, the area irrigated and the means by which it is watered have remained similar over the past nine years. Currently water use is known and recorded for each irrigation on 58% of irrigated farms.

Adoption of automation has continued to rise, enabling farmers to use less water but with greater precision, with more than half of irrigation farms now using timers or other systems, particularly where they are irrigating with sprinklers or pivots. Other changes (including upgrading delivery structures, increasing farm storage) have been made on 54% of irrigated farms. Decisions on when to irrigate continue to be driven by past experience (mentioned by 67% of irrigators) rather than using specific devices such as tensiometers (10%) or scheduling tools (2%).

Nationally, 75% of dairy farms recycle water from the dairy shed and a further 5% intend doing so in the near future. The farms not recycling this water are typically those running smaller herds and those in Queensland and WA. While 85% of water is reused on farms where it is recycled, this equates to a much lower 60% when all farms are taken into consideration (including those that reuse none). Many farms are therefore recycling a considerable amount of the water used in the dairy, but there is clearly scope to encourage further adoption of this practice, particularly among those with smaller herds.

The 2015 NRM Survey found that less than half of all dairy farms (45%) manage areas for conservation or biodiversity. On average these areas represent 7% of the farm (or 4% of all dairy farm land).This does not include farmers who fence off waterways. Data extrapolation suggests that about 59,000 hectares are being managed for conservation. This is probably to be expected however, with economic pressures meaning that as much land as possible needs to be productive. Regardless, this result indicates an area where farmers may need further support.

Dairy farmers are now typically using four and five different types of fertilisers on their properties compared to three and four types in 2012. This may be due in part to an increase in the proportion of farms conducting soil tests (from 82% in 2012 to 87% in 2015) – with 42% doing so annually  - and the fact that 58% now have a nutrient budget or Fert$mart plan for the farm. Fert$mart is the dairy industry’s national nutrient management framework. It may also be due to the increasing number of dairy farmers now sourcing advice from professionals (from 82% in 2012 to 88% in 2015).

Data included in the 2015 NRM Survey report is based on responses from 601 randomly selected dairy farmers who participated in a telephone survey between August and September 2015.

The survey response rate was a high 69%, resulting in a good level of confidence in results. The margin for error on the total sample is ±3.5% but rises to ±12.7% where there are smaller subsamples.

Sustainable Development Goals

Dairy farmers are proactive in managing environmental impacts such as natural resource depletion and adverse impacts of environmental degradation. Through the Global Dairy Agenda for Action, the industry is increasingly understanding and embracing the role dairy farmers have to play in achieving the recently released UN Sustainable Development Goals:

2.4 By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.

8.4 Improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead.