The Story of Australia’s First Dairy Cows

The dairy industry in Australia has a value of $4 billion. This includes a variety of different dairy products such as Australian milk, yoghurt, butter and cheese. Around 50% of these products are exported. In fact, the country is the third-largest exporter of dairy products in the world. 

This is all a far cry from when the first dairy cattle were brought to Australia in the 18th century. It’s interesting to look at these early origins of this valuable industry. 


Formative years of Australian dairy cows 

The first dairy cattle arrived on Australian soil with the first fleet, in 1788. There were seven cows and two bulls and they were brought from England. 

These first Australian dairy cows were meant to help with development in the country. However, they escaped into the bush. This did not stop them from being useful as they survived and bred. 

In the space of six years, the herd grew to 61. In these early days, there was a great need for meat, so some cows were slaughtered. However, this did not stop the dairy industry from starting to develop. 

Preservation of early dairy products 

By 1800, there were 322 bulls and 712 cows in Australia. Not all of these animals were descendants of the original group; some were imported.

At this time, farmers began producing dairy products like milk and cheese. They chose to produce the products in spring and summer as the cows produced most milk at this time of year. They then preserved the products using salt. This meant that the dairy items were kept fresh for consumption during the autumn and winter months. 

The first commercial dairy cows in Australia 

The dairy industry remained fairly small scale until the advancement of refrigeration, late in the 1800s. This was when cows were first used commercially in Australia.  

Dr John Harris built the first commercial dairy in Sydney, in 1805. The Van Diemen’s Land Company followed by creating the first commercial cheese factory in the country. The company opened the factory in the 1820s, in Tasmania. 

The dairy industry expanded further when farmers in Illawarra started to send cheese and butter to Sydney. More ports opened in the area allowing farmers to distribute more of their products. 

Dairy cows arrived in the area that would become Melbourne, in 1832. John Fawkner started the new herd with two cows and two calves. This was the beginning of an impressive period of growth. 

In a year, the number of cattle in the area grew to 155. By 1850, there were 347,000 cattle in the district. 

This expansion of dairy farming across Australia meant that there were almost one million dairy cows in the country, in 1891. 

The gold rush was partly responsible for the growth in dairy farming at this time. As the rush faltered, the government gave many people pastoral leases. These people set up dairy herds in almost every township. The dairy industry was now established, around a century after the fleet brought the original two bulls and seven cows to Australia. 

In summary 

It’s hard to believe that the high performing Australian dairy industry of today began with just a handful of first dairy cows in Australia.  It was not an easy start, with cows escaping or being slaughtered.

Despite this, Australian dairy farmers persevered and the industry eventually flourished. There have been many hurdles to overcome since those early days, including deregulation in July 2000. 


However, the number of dairy cattle is now more than 1.6 million, across around 5,700 dairy farms. This is a world away from when those original cows arrived on Australian shores in the 18th century.

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