A dairy farm in the Huon Valley, 1960 (AOT,
Dairying on a small scale began soon after European settlement, with commercial operators keeping just a few cows to supply fresh milk. Up to 1830 there were few quality dairies, and large quantities of salted butter and cheese were imported from Sydney. Gradually good dairy cattle were imported and by the 1850s Tasmania was self-sufficient and exporting both butter and cheese. Exports continued to rise, especially from northern areas, while new mining communities also provided a ready market. By 1891, there were 445 dairy farmers in the state, half of them women.
The industry then began to be transformed. The mechanical milk separator, which saved time and labour while producing a superior butter, fostered the development of factories, while refrigeration in ships opened up the British market. After an abortive attempt at Scottsdale, the first butter factory was Wynyard's Table Cape, which began in 1892 and was an immediate success.
People with cheeses at Saltwater River, 1900 (AOT,
Factories in all regions followed, but most struggled initially. By 1900 exports had dried up, and the Tasmanian government appointed a Dairy Expert and a Council of Agriculture to help educate farmers. Dairying surged ahead with the increasing use of hand separators on farms; cream for butter could now be collected just twice a week, making dairying possible further from towns. More factories were built, by both co-operatives and proprietary companies, and by 1912 the industry was firmly established.
During the First World War pasteurisation became common in factories, thus ensuring high-grade butter. Cool storage on interstate boats and new freezing works at Somerset in 1917 helped further, while herd-testing associations (the first was at Yolla in 1912–13) led to herd improvement. A few dairies began to use milking machines, but even by 1940 most cows were hand-milked.
The federal government passed the Dairy Produce Export Control Act (1924) to help prevent wild market fluctuations, while Cadbury in Hobart provided a new market. With improved road transport which allowed factories to draw supplies from a wider area, rationalisations began. By 1929, the biggest dairy company in the state was North-Western, with factories at Burnie, Devonport and Deloraine.
During the Second World War, the federal government heavily subsidised production, paid on butterfat content. Only suppliers to a central factory qualified, and farm-based butter and cheese manufacture declined, a move accelerated by the wartime shortage of labour. Milking machines became common in the 1940s, especially with the spread of electricity to rural areas. Following the war, several businesses attempted to satisfy the demand of migrants for a much wider array of dairy products. The best known was Milan Vyhnalek's Lactos, which manufactured continental cheeses.
From the late 1940s dairying expanded steadily, with Britain taking any available butter. For two decades Smithton's Duck River was the greatest single butter-producing factory in Tasmania, with a 1971 peak of 4106 tons. But from the 1960s, in preparation for Britain's 1973 entry into the European Economic Community, the butter factories began to diversify to satisfy the Asian market and the changing Australian market. For the new products such as flavoured milk, specialty cheese, casein and later whey powder, they needed milk, not cream; Table Cape began collecting milk in 1963.
The farmer now had to supply a refrigerated tank for his milk, guarantee a minimum quantity, and possibly remodel the yard to allow a tanker to turn. As a result, many farmers left the industry. Those who remained turned increasingly to Friesians, as they produced more milk than Jerseys, and went out of pig production as there was no skim milk to feed them. Herd size continually increased, and dairies were converted to the more efficient herring-bone design; the biggest farmers installed rotary dairies. The amount of milk per cow dramatically increased through better pasture management and breeding techniques, especially the use of artificial insemination. Simultaneously, the number of dairy farmers declined, from 6300 in 1960, to fewer than 600 in 2004.
Factories too had to invest in new machinery, especially the new automatic machines, and a series of rationalisations among the old butter factories occurred, leading to the formation of United Milk Tasmania Ltd (UMT) in 1981. Now Bonlac, it uses over half the state's milk at its Spreyton and Wynyard factories. Betta at Burnie and National Foods in Hobart produce drinking milk and cream, while four other factories produce cheeses and UHT (long-life) products. From the 1980s there have been several farm enterprises making specialty cheeses, perhaps the best known being Jane Bennett's Ashgrove at Elizabeth Town. (See also King Island dairies.)
Further reading: J Cassidy, The dairy heritage of northern Tasmania, Launceston, 1995; Examiner, 7 June 2004.