Dairy farmers grilled Dairy Australia's staff at the annual general meeting at Lardner Park on Friday about a range of issues - from marketing to membership and advocacy.
KarinjeetSingh-Mahil, Crossley, Vic, asked if DA was aware of an emerging group of consumers between their late 20s and 50s who had given up milk and were not interested in dairy products and what did DA have in its suite of programs to deal with this.
Dairy Australia group manager - marketing and communications Kendra Campbell said the consumer research DA had done in identifying the influential 'changemaker' group didn't show a skew to any age group.
But internationally, research showed millennials and gen-z had a greater sphere of influences and were flexing between dairy and alternatives more often.
"In terms of our response, we've absolutely got to continue to push the trust message in dairy and promote what we are doing in terms of our commitment to the environment, and welfare, particularly the environment, and health and nutrition," Ms Campbell said.
"And that is certainly playing into our plans for next year."
DA chair Jeff Odgers said a lot of alternative products were not the same as milk in terms of their nutritional value.
Australian Dairy Farmers and state dairy farming organisations were working on regulatory approaches to labelling milk alternatives, which was based on comparing attributes of those products.
"I think we all share similar views, we want to defend something we absolutely believe in," he said.
Patrick Glass, Gundowring, Vic, asked what was being done to protect a key income stream for farms - the export of dairy genetics, by explaining the value of the trade.
DA managing director Dr David Nation said it was important for farm leaders to tell the story of the importance of that trade.
"We are talking about breeding stock to go to places like China and Pakistan and Mexico to have a full life in those countries, to be on farms that are just like farms here, and to have a normal productive life on those farms," he said.
It was important those issues were picked up in the ADF policy advisory groups and that the leaders of those groups were armed with the facts to be able to tell the story of the merit of that trade.
DA group manager - trade and industry strategy Charles McElhone said the live heifer trade did bring value to the industry and DA had been doing a lot of work for a number of years to try to secure that trade, particularly into China.
"We have had some issues around three-generation pedigree requirements into the Chinese market," he said.
"And we have been talking actively with them about making sure they are comfortable with the kind of systems and processes that we have in place to ensure those quality requirements come out of the Australian dairy herd."
DA was also working with Livecorp and the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council to look at potential pressure points in heifer trade markets around the world to ensure Australia had a secure trade.
Robert Auchterlonie, Dumbalk, Vic, asked what DA was doing to address the current rate of loss of farmers from the industry and was it missing something that was a factor in this loss.
Mr Odgers said from his personal point of view every drop of milk and every farmer lost to the industry mattered.
Diminishing farmer numbers were a global trend.
"None of us like it," he said.
"But I think people make individual choices for all sorts of reasons about whether they remain in the industry.
"It's a tough game, dairying, we know it is.
"It can be a very rewarding game but it's a tough game and it's become harder to be profitable.
"There are some real social trends at play out there that don't see some farmers feeling as inclined to continue, that is just a reality."
He pointed to the Australian Dairy Plan as providing potential solutions, with workshops indicating a sense that the industry could grow.
"We do need to try to get people in a place in their businesses where they can stay in the industry or contemplate growing if they want to," he said.
"Because when things are growing, even if it is just really steadily, that brings all sorts of positives."
Michael Partridge, Benger, WA, asked if DA was going to provide more support to state dairy farming organisations, given the importance of advocacy on many issues and given that only 30-40 per cent of farmers contributed to those organisation.
Mr Odgers said DA recognised the work representative organisations did but its funds had been stretched and it was called on to support many other dairy organisations, but had mainly looked at the national level.
Dr Nation said the future role of DA, levies and advocacy was the focus of the Australian Dairy Plan's Joint Transition Team.
It was vital to ensure the industry had a strong voice and strong services, both at a national level and in every region.
It was important to get the structure right in the next phase.
Bernie Free, Winslow, Vic, asked why every dairy farmer was not automatically a DA member when every dairy farmer was compelled to pay levies and why DA had not looked at ways to make this happen.
Dr Nation said the government set the rules that meant no one could automatically become a member of a company, which was how DA was formally structured.
Mr Odgers said he regularly flagged the issue with farmers encouraging them to join but there was nothing more DA could do under the current legislation.
Paul Mumford, Won Wron, Vic, asked if DA had heard his call as UDV president several months ago about where had it been and if was hearing the grassroots message that research, development and extension portions were not being distributed as farmers wanted and if DA was committed to supporting the Australian Dairy Plan.
Mr Odgers said DA was committed to deliver on the key areas identified from the dairy plan workshops.
In terms of responding to farmer requests, he said engagement levels with DA events were rising, with more than 6000 people attending more than 1000 DA events across the nation in the past 12 months.
DA now spent less on the research component - about $10 million out of its $58 million spend last year was on the large, flagship research programs.
But the leverage on these was amazing.
"The farmer contribution to those flagship programs is about one-fifth of the total spend; the rest is backed in by other partners," he said.
"I know it is tough out there but if we don't fund research and find the edge with research in this country - which has sort of got its own unique operating environment in world dairy - we are going to slip behind."
Ian Morris, Cobden, Vic, asked why processors were represented on the DA board and why funds were spent on export promotion, given the change in the industry from co-ops, which meant such expenditure was now subsidising major international players.
Mr Odgers said the Australian Dairy Plan national workshop backed the industry working on structures in a whole-of-chain way.
"Processors are a part of the chain - I don't know about subsidising international players - but we need processors to be successful so the rest of the chain can be successful," he said.
DA's spend post farmgate on the manufacturing end of the industry was small.
Dr Nation said it was important to look at the role of farmers and processors in the supply chain - when they should work together and when they had their own interests.
"From a DA perspective, 35pc of milk last year was exported," he said.
"Still a lot of milk goes overseas.
"International markets are still important to the prosperity of the Australian dairy industry and will be for the foreseeable future."
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DA spent a small amount promoting Australian products overseas, but that was important for farmers to ensure Australian products had the strongest image overseas regardless of which company was responsible for processing and getting involved in the export activity.
"There are genuine times when it is in farmers' interest to support Australian dairy products here and overseas," Dr Nation said.
Paul Mundy, Cobram East, Vic, said from his perspective the dairy plan national workshop was not necessarily representative of farmers' views as the table he had been on at the event had three dairy farmers, three processor representatives and two supermarket representatives.
Noel Campbell, Yannathan, Vic, said he did not want to pre-empt the dairy plan nor upset anyone in areas that were struggling with drought, but the reality was that at some point the tide would change and the dial would need to be set to the future.
"I don't want to be seen as an industry that needs a gold-coin donation," he said.
"And I think we all need to understand that there are significant areas of Australia that are also doing very well and we need to recognise that."
Mr Odgers said that was one of the huge challenges for Dairy Australia.
"If you want to go from the Atherton Tablelands down to the Derwent Valley in Hobart ... over to Western Australia, it is a massive country and it is an industry that does really well in regions right across our country," he said.
"But it is so diverse in terms of how to run farms and what markets are like.
"We as an industry have to get our heads together and work around that.
"Because I tell you what, if this breaks down into regional pockets, we will all suffer.
"That's our challenge."