Historically the growth of the dairying and milk-processing industries, from early settlement times until the 1960s, was one of Victoria's success stories as the house cow extended into small co-operatives operated by farmers which evolved into large manufacturing concerns. Today a handful of companies dominate the industry.
The cool green pastures of Victoria proved superb for milk, butter and cheese production as quality and taste are intricately linked to pasture and feed. Because of climate restrictions and land availability, cows in the UK during the 18th and 19th centuries were often fed on mash and cooked foods rather than on grass. The produce from Victorian cows tasted stronger and fresher and local farmers soon realised there was potential to export this excellent produce, particularly after the introduction of refrigeration in the 1880s.
Most small homesteaders in early Port Phillip had a house cow to provide fresh milk, cream and butter and cheese if the woman of the house was skilful and knowledgeable. Milk was easily contaminated in the dairy and the mark of a good dairywoman was her cleanliness. Such dairies quickly developed a solid reputation and began to supply neighbours. The amount that could be sold was determined by the number of cows held and the methods available. Hand churning was slow, but as separators became available output could grow. As city growth spread out, and agricultural land was subsumed, cows often came to be depastured on reserves or town commons established for the purpose. By the 1880s fresh milk was supplied twice daily to Melbourne from dairy farms in the fertile foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, while farmers to Melbourne's west in areas such as Werribee focused on butter production. In 1920 dairy cows in Melbourne were still being depastured in Fawkner Park, Yarra Park, Royal Park and Princes Park (with fees paid to the Melbourne City Council), the grounds of the University of Melbourne, some railway reserve and vacant land in Kensington, and Melbourne Harbor Trust land in Dynon Road, West Melbourne.
Delivery by horse and cart limited the area which could be supplied, but railways began to snake across the landscape and better methods of keeping butter and cheese fresh were developed. Ice made a huge difference, ensuring that produce stayed fresh over longer distances. Larger producers began to look overseas and to the growing city centres for their markets. Mechanical separators introduced in the late 19th century made it possible for farmers to separate milk on the farm and send their cream away every two or three days instead of daily. By grouping into co-operatives to buy the heavy machinery to make butter and cheeses they developed the capacity to supply these new markets. Steam engines turned the larger separators and churns in factories supplied with specialised equipment. All were urged on by the government-sponsored travelling dairy which toured country districts teaching these new and more efficient methods. Mechanised milking machines were also important but it was not until the 1930s that machines were cheap enough and available for installation in most dairies. Larger herds could then be milked and costs cut and the industry forged ahead.
Dairying was now viable in closely settled areas. Steam sterilising was compulsory, competition between areas encouraged, electricity made the work cleaner and faster, soldier settlement programs brought new labour into the industry, and irrigation-improved pasture guaranteed a steady yield per animal. Pig-raising became a popular side industry to utilise the whey products remaining after the cream had been used.
In the metropolis, the Talbot Milk Institute was formed in 1908 to encourage the supply of pure milk for infants. It developed standard conditions for production, storage and distribution of milk. Diseases commonly conveyed through milk included tuberculosis, typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, as well as diarrhoeal conditions. While the Dairy Produce Act 1919 introduced new measures for milk testing, grading, pricing and inspection, the 'Milk Question' was hotly debated into the 1920s. There were still regular outbreaks of disease - scarlet fever in Essendon, bovine tuberculosis in privately owned cows in Brighton - and the backyard cow was widely condemned. A Milk Conference attempted to rationalise supply and quality control problems resulting from the exercise of control over the industry by multiple authorities including the Public Health Commission, the Railways Department and municipalities.
Dr Edith Barrett represented Women's Medical Societies in a series of lectures on the Milk Question delivered at the Melbourne Town Hall in 1921 under the auspices of the University of Melbourne. Barrett noted that between 1911 and 1919 there were 2853 infantile deaths in Melbourne from diarrhoeal diseases, 2336 of which occurred in the hotter months (November-April). A pure milk supply as well as domestic hygiene were seen as the keys to reducing milk poisoning. While the affluent mother with a well-filled ice-chest could, according to the National Council of Women, keep milk reasonably safe for consumption, it was more difficult for many other consumers. The Melbourne City Council made subsidised milk available at some infant welfare centres, and householders were encouraged to ensure that the enamel billycans used as milk receptacles were clean, and to keep them under a moist cloth in the coolest part of the house. Model Suburban Dairies developed from the 1920s with an emphasis on improved hygiene, and the resale of milk was limited to select grocers and confectioners (excluding, for example, greengrocers). The bottling of milk became more prevalent in subsequent decades.
Where cows in outer suburbs had once supplied the metropolis, by 1920 most milk came from dairies 60 km or more distant. Country stations forwarded milk to the metropolitan area along the Gippsland, South Gippsland, Mornington, Western District, Bacchus Marsh, Whittlesea, Healesville, Main and North Eastern lines. From 68 forwarding stations within an 80-km radius, milk being transported to the metropolis could be in transit for over two and a half hours. In the metropolitan area, 87 700 quarts were received daily by rail at stations including Flinders Street (2400), Caulfield (1000), Toorak (1360), Spencer Street (6000), Camberwell (4000) and Richmond (3000). Suggested measures to improve supply included the separation of milk from general merchandise, transport from country to metropolitan stations in proper ice-louvred trucks, and proper provision for the reception of milk at receiving stations. The city's total daily consumption of 120 759 quarts also comprised milk delivered by road (20 320) and produced locally (12 739). Within the metropolitan area itself there were 759 milk shops, and 823 carts employed at 401 dairies in suburbs such as Essendon (38), Brunswick (35), Prahran (29), Fitzroy (27), Collingwood (26), Richmond (23), Hawthorn (21), South Melbourne (21), and Caulfield (20).
In the 1910s the Retail Master Dairymen's Association controlled the majority of the Melbourne and suburban supply as well as milk pricing. A Milk Board Act in the 1930s provided for a Board to regulate metropolitan milk supplies, replacing the more independent operation of individual licensed dairies. From 1951 the Board purchased milk from farmers for resale to dairies for distribution. The Victorian Dairy Industry Authority replaced the Victorian Milk Board in 1977. A sample of inner-suburban dairy numbers in 1963 indicates a significant reduction from comparable figures of four decades earlier: Caulfield (12), Footscray (11), Essendon (8), Coburg (7), Melbourne (5), Northcote (5), Brighton (4), Richmond (3), Brunswick (3) and Collingwood (1).
In 1950 53.8% of Melbourne's milk was pasteurised; a Milk Pasteurisation Act was introduced in 1958, the same year that milk cartons were first introduced. The old pint bottle was replaced in 1975 by the 600 ml bottle, at around the same time that most suburban milkmen had stopped their home deliveries. By the late 1980s only 2% of milk was still sold in bottles. In the 1950s and 1960s clever marketing sold milk as an adult food or drink and the whey products were more commonly used in skim milk, milk powders and casein, all of which had a huge overseas market. Small farmers were persuaded to leave the business and those left were encouraged to increase herd numbers through a focus on breeding programs. Today most herds in Victoria use high-yielding strains such as Friesians. The huge co-operatives have gone and a few large companies dominate the industry, but Victoria remains the major milk producer within Australia with a large portion of the overseas market.