Black Milk: What happens to the dairy industry when the lights go out?

Milking dairy cows in Gippsland, Victoria.

Having no power, such as the state-wide power loss in South Australia this month can be stressful, slow, and costly.

Storms and power-outages are an everyday worry in Australian life. Usually, the most people will lose is the warm milk in their fridge.

But what happens to everyone else’s milk when the power goes out?

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Image: Infographic of Australia’s dairy industry. Made by Kemii Maguire, statistics retrieved from Dairy Australia

Australia has 1.74 million dairy cows – with a $13.5 billion industry behind it. Each cow produces 15 litres a day; which in a power outage, can be a great loss of up to 4,000 litres of milk per day for a farmer.

It’s all about the safety of the cows

Norco Milk Supply’s General Manager Rob Randall says that it is important for animal health reasons that farmers continue milking during storms or power outages.

“As a business, we also work very hard to minimise milk loss for our farmers through managing the logistics of milk pick up at these times,” Mr Randall says.

A 40-50kVA capacity generator should milk 230-250 cows – sufficient to continue an average farm.

“As the generators are usually powered by diesel, the only limitation in regard to time is available fuel,” Norco Milk General Manager Rob Randall said.

“We find that these events, including flooding, do not generally last more than 48 hours at the most, which significantly reduces the risk of milk loss.”

Missed milkings can be stressful for the farmers and the cows. If normal milking doesn’t resume after 48 hours, longer production losses would occur.

Farmers often have to dump milk, if the tankers cannot access the farm. Instead, they can feed the milk to calves or diluting it to spray onto the land.

“[At Norco] our farmers are usually insured against losses of milk…and because Norco is a cooperative, the company assists the farmers as best we can.”

Bacteria getting into the tit of the cows known as “mastitis” is the major worry for farmers during wet weather. It can be fatal, painful, and the main product from not milking.

“On very rare occasions, loss of stock through lightning strikes in the paddock have occurred in the past.

“But again, this is very rare as you could imagine.”

Maleny Dairies’ Lorraine Ward says they move cows from the surrounding fields into their milking sheds.

“All of the cows that you see in the surrounding fields actually belong to the Hopper Dairy next to our factory,” Ms Lorraine says.

“There is a large barn where the cows are kept during bad weather, behind [our factory] shed.”

Production as normal when it comes to exports

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Image: Dairy Export Production (2015/16), retrieved from Dairy Australia

Exports of Australia’s dairy products is on an increase, with our main outside consumers being China and Japan. Other dairy products such as powdered milk, cheese, and butter are in high demand worldwide.

With each having their own export tariff from the Australian Government equal to their own value, dairy producers must keep to their estimated production for that year. This means that in a power outage, companies try to keep to their regular schedule.

China’s tariff for milk and powdered formula is currently at 15.00% (as of Oct 2016).

In the National Dairy Farmer Survey (NDFS) 2016, 67% of farmers were positive about industry future – coming down from 74% in 2015.

An alarming figure, but one which is not surprising considering only 64% of farmers anticipate a profit this year.

Preparation is the key to reducing loss

Much like people at home, dairy farms’ survival in a storm relies heavily on their emergency plan.

South Australia Power Networks says on their website that they prioritise restoration work based on attending to outages impacting critical infrastructure.

After such a long and dry spring, it’s a good time for dairy farmers to use a preparation checklist, says Dairy Australia’s Julie Iommi.

“Often farmers who are in a flood plain are pretty-well prepared. But if you think about it, the last flood could have been five years ago and things can change,” says Ms Iommi.

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