Release of historic agricultural data and an update on future agricultural data

An article highlighting the release of historic agricultural data back to 1860 and an update on ABS' agricultural data modernisation program


Looking back: Over 150 years of agricultural commodity data now available

Australia has a long history of agriculture dating back many thousands of years to Australia's First Peoples. This historical release includes a selection of agricultural commodities, covering crops and livestock from 1860 to 2022. Presented below is a snapshot of those results for wheat, sheep, and wool.


The 1789 harvest at the Rosehill settlement on the Parramatta River was reported as consisting of 200 bushels of wheat (approximately 5 tonnes), 60 bushels of barley (approximately 1 tonne), and small quantities of oats, corn, and flax. Over 70 years later in 1861, Australia produced 279,000 tonnes of wheat, 68,000 tonnes of oats and 11,000 tonnes of barley.

Farming in Australia differed to the practices in the United Kingdom. This presented challenges for Australian farmers which they overcame with great ingenuity and innovation. In the 1870s the stump jump plough was invented in South Australia and completely changed agricultural practices. It allowed crops to be grown without removing stumps and rocks, saving a lot of work and time. Between 1876 and 1881, the area sown to wheat increased from 575,000 hectares to 1.2 million hectares.

Agronomist, William Farrer, developed a drought and disease resistant wheat strain called the Federation strain, leading to the expansion of wheat growing into the drier inland regions of Australia. The Federation strain was released to Australian farmers in 1903 and resulted in an almost doubling of the area sown to wheat and an eight-fold increase of Australia's production over a period of twenty years.

Innovations in agriculture through the last century drove further growth in the wheat industry. These included farm management activities (mixed farming, crop rotation and application of fertilisers), improvements in cultivation techniques, and, since the 1940s, the use of tractors.

Another major advancement for the industry was the introduction of bulk handling systems, which meant grain was no longer required to be bagged before transport and storage. By 1952, all mainland states had bulk handling systems in place. Grain stored in bulk handling facilities experience less deterioration compared to bagged storage and provide protection to the wheat from mice, weevils, climatic conditions, and spillage.

The ongoing development of chemicals to combat diseases, pests and weeds, and the further development of higher yielding disease resistant wheat strains continue to make important contributions to the industry. In 2022 wheat production achieved a new historic record of 36 million tonnes driven by a bumper season in Western Australia and New South Wales.

Historical timeline: Australian wheat production, 1861 to 2022

Infographic charting wheat production from 1861 to 2022 and influencing events of the period

An infographic charting Australian wheat production from 1861 to 2022 and events during the period which influenced production. Events include the stump jump plough invented in 1876, Federation drought impacted wheat production from 1895 to 1902, Federation strain of wheat released to farmers in 1903, 1914-15 drought saw production decrease 76%, during the 1940s tractors became more widely used, 1937 to 1945 drought saw production decrease 65%, in 1948 the Australian Wheat Board is formed, by 1952 bulk grain handling systems were used across all states, 1965 to 1968 drought saw production decrease 25%, 1982 to 1983 drought saw production decrease 46%, the Millennium drought between 1997 and 2009 saw production decrease 41%, 2017 to 2019 drought saw production decrease 45%.

The infographic also highlights key wheat production figures including: in 1861 Australia produced 279,000 tonnes of wheat, 635,000 tonnes produced in 1881, 1.3 million tonnes produced in 1901, 4 million tonnes produced in 1921, 2.2 million tonnes produced in 1941, 7.4 million tonnes produced in 1961, 10.9 million tonnes produced in 1981, 22.1 million tonnes produced in 2001 and in 2022 wheat production was 36 million tonnes.

Sheep and wool

In 1797, 26 Spanish Merino sheep were introduced to Australia from South Africa. These sheep adapted well to the Australian environment compared to those that arrived with the First Fleet. The Merino breed excelled in wool production, and in 1813, Australia’s first commercial fleece shipment was sold in England. This fortunate timing coincided with the British Government’s need for a reliable wool supply during the Napoleonic wars. This commercial success led to another 5,000 merino sheep being imported during the 1820s, laying the foundations of the Australian wool industry.

The Australian sheep and wool industries have seen boom and bust cycles. Between 1820 and 1850, sheep numbers surged from 120,000 to 16 million. By the late 19th century, wool became Australia’s primary export. However, economic challenges, including the depression of the 1890s and the prolonged ‘Federation’ drought (1895-1902), significantly impacted wool production. Sheep numbers dropped from 106 million in 1892 to 54 million in 1903.

Despite these setbacks the industry rebounded. In 1950-51, the wool industry reached its peak with an average greasy wool price of 144.2 pence per pound (equivalent to around $69 per kilogram in 2021-22). This surge was driven by American demand during the Korean War. However, prices eventually declined, and by 1970-71, the price fell to $0.60 per kilogram (equivalent to around $7 per kilogram in 2021-22). In 1974, Australia introduced the Reserve Price Scheme to stabilise wool prices. The scheme guaranteed producers a minimum price for their wool by purchasing wool that did not meet the agreed floor price, then selling it later during times of higher demand.

Australian wool production peaked in 1989-90 with 1,050 million kilograms of wool and 170 million sheep. However, the increasing use of synthetic fibres, a global over-supply of wool and the 1991 collapse of the Reserve Price Scheme, resulted in wool prices plummeting to $3 a kilogram in 1992-93 (equivalent to around $6 per kilogram in 2021-22). After a slight recovery from the economic issues, the Millennium drought saw sheep numbers drop again, from 120 million in 1997 to 68 million in 2010. After a brief period of better seasonal conditions, another drought between 2017 to 2019 resulted in Australia’s wool production dropping to its lowest level since 1923. In 2019-20 only 290 million kilograms were sold, and the sheep flock dropped to 63.5 million, the smallest flock since 1904.

Historical timeline: Australian wool production and sheep flock, 1797 to 2022

Infographic charting wool production and sheep flock from 1797 to 2022 and influencing events of the period

An infographic charting Australian wool production and sheep flock from 1797 to 2022 and events during the period which influenced the industry. Events include the arrival of Australia's first 26 merino sheep in 1797, the first commercial export of wool in 1813, another 5,000 merino sheep imported during the 1820s, wool becoming Australia's primary export in the 1890s, the Federation drought impacted sheep numbers from 1895 to 1902, record high wool prices of $66 per kilogram in 1950-51 and a record low prices in 1970-71, the introduction of the Wool Reserve Price Scheme in 1974, the oversupply of wool and collapse of the Wool Reserve Price Scheme in 1991 and the impact of the millennium drought between 1997 and 2009 on sheep numbers.

The infographic also highlights key sheep and lamb numbers including: 120,000 sheep in 1820, 16 million sheep in 1850, 106 million sheep in 1892, 54 million sheep in 1903, 115 million sheep in 1951, 152 million sheep in 1959, a record high of 180 million sheep in 1970, 140 million sheep in 1973, 170 million sheep in 1990 and 68 million sheep in 2022.

Agricultural commodity data

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has a long tradition of producing agricultural statistics. Statistics have been compiled from information collected directly from farmers in large-scale surveys for more than a century.

A data cube presenting historical data for a range of agricultural commodities from 1860 to 2022 has been added to the 2021-22 edition of Agricultural Commodities, Australia. This is the final update for this discontinued release, which will be replaced in June 2024 with a new ABS agricultural statistics series, Australian Agriculture.

The Australian Agriculture series will contain information on key agricultural commodities with estimates produced using a range of new methods and data sources rather than large scale farm surveys.

Looking ahead: improved agricultural statistics to support Australian farmers

The ABS is modernising the way official agricultural statistics are produced to better support Australian agriculture. New data sources will support improved regional detail on an annual basis. This helps to understand impacts from biosecurity and climate risks as well as supply chain and infrastructure requirements and supports decision making by governments, industry, and farmers.

Partnerships with industry and government to develop new statistical methods using these new data sources have reduced respondent burden on farmers, and created greater consistency between existing data sources which builds trust in the statistics.

These changes were outlined in early 2023 in Modernising ABS Agriculture Statistics which explained why the ABS is modernising its Agriculture Statistics Program and the guiding principles being followed.

This article provides an update on agricultural data being produced by the ABS in 2024.

New releases in 2024 for ABS Cropping, Horticulture and Livestock Statistics

A new compendium release Australian Agriculture will replace the now discontinued Agricultural Commodities, Australia, and Value of Agriculture Commodities Produced, Australia. Australian Agriculture will be published for the first time on 14 June 2024 and will include three related releases presenting 2022-23 statistics for Broadacre Crops, Horticulture and Livestock, as outlined below.

All three releases will be published together for 2022-23, with subsequent issues staggered to facilitate the timely release of data.

Australian Agriculture: Broadacre Crops

Broadacre crop estimates are being produced on a financial year basis, with detailed regional data available annually. Table 1 outlines broadacre crop estimates that will be available from 2022-23.

Broadacre estimates are being produced utilising Satellite Crop Mapping data, and administrative Levy Payer Register data from the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) that includes information on the amount and value of agricultural crops produced.

Table 1. Broadacre estimates available from 2022-23 
CommodityStatistical componentGeography
Wheat, Barley, Canola, Chickpeas, Lentils, Lupins, Maize, Oats, Rice, Sorghum, SugarcaneCrop area (ha)National, state, SA2
Crop production (tonnes)National, state, SA2
Crop value ($)National, state, SA2
Number of businesses (no.)National, state, SA2
CottonCrop area (ha)National, state, SA2

Australian Agriculture: Horticulture

Horticulture crop estimates are being produced on a financial year basis.

National and state, production and value estimates for 70 different horticultural commodities will be reproduced from Hort Innovation (HI) estimates from 2022-23.  This approach will create consistency between government and industry statistical data for horticulture.

The ABS is partnering with HI and key horticulture industry groups to create additional regional detail as well as crop area and business count data to complement the HI estimates. Developing this additional detail will be an incremental process and detailed data will only be available for avocados and macadamias in 2022-23.

Table 2. Horticulture estimates available from 2022-23
CommodityStatistical componentGeography
Avocado (a), Macadamias (a) (b)Crop bearing area (ha)National, state, SA2
Crop total area (ha)National, state, SA2
Crop production (tonnes)National, state, SA2
Crop value ($)National, state, SA2
Number of businesses (no.)National, state
Hort Innovation 
68 horticulture commodities
Crop production (tonnes)National, state
Crop value ($)National, state
Wine grapesCrop production (tonnes)National, state
Crop value ($)National, state
  1. Experimental estimates
  2. To be confirmed

Australian Agriculture: Livestock

Livestock disposals and products will be produced for the 2022-23 financial year, as described in Table 3. Livestock disposals estimates continue to be produced through existing ABS quarterly surveys, while livestock products are produced using administrative sources.

Livestock number estimates are being developed incrementally with the initial focus on developing estimates for the cattle herd. These estimates relate to the number of Livestock on holding at 30 June 2023.

The ABS is partnering with experts from industry and government to develop a new approach to estimate cattle herd and sheep flock numbers by accounting for fertility, movements, and slaughter on a regional basis across Australia. This approach will use a range of data sources including disposals, live exports, and information on herd/flock demographics and fertility together with rainfall and pasture conditions.

The cattle herd numbers will be released as an experimental series reflecting that there will be ongoing development to further refine the method in addition to applying it to the sheep flock.

Regional estimates will not be available for any livestock series in 2023 however this is a future aim through access to new data sources and the continued development of the approach to estimate herd and flock numbers.

Table 3. Livestock estimates available from 2022-23
CommodityStatistical componentGeography
Livestock Disposals – sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and other livestockValue ($)National, state
Livestock Products – wool and milkValue ($)National, state
Livestock Herd and Composition – cattle (a)NumberNational, state
  1. Experimental, to be confirmed

More regional data, more often

Detailed regional estimates for broadacre crop estimates will be available annually from 2022-23, along with estimates for selected horticulture commodities (avocados and macadamias).

All sub-state estimates will be released in interactive digital maps, and will be available via Data Explorer, to allow for greater access to regional data. Data explorer is a free online ABS service that presents data in a searchable, flexible, and dynamic way, enabling the creation of tables and data visualisations.

Bridging gaps in agricultural data availability

The modernisation of the ABS Agricultural Statistics Program has enabled large scale ABS agricultural surveys, including the Agricultural Census, to be ceased which has reduced reporting burden on farmers. 

Most commodity data previously produced from these surveys can be produced using alternative data sources however there are data gaps in this first release of modernised agricultural statistics. An expanded range of detailed commodity data that will fill these gaps is expected to be developed over the next few years, including:

  • Broadacre crops: hay and silage estimates; expanded cotton estimates (to include production amounts and value); estimates of crop production used on farm.
  • Horticulture: detailed regional estimates for a wider range of horticultural commodities including production amounts and values, crop area and grower counts.
  • Livestock: regional herd estimates for beef cattle, dairy cattle, and sheep.

Other data gaps remain more challenging to address and include agricultural land and water use.

The ABS is partnering with the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and industry groups to identify and address current and emerging gaps in agricultural statistics. An update will be provided later in 2024 that provides more detail on the next steps to filling these gaps.

The ABS wants to hear from you. If you have ideas about potential new data sources to support agricultural statistics, want to be part of the collaborative development of new methods, or have questions about elements of the modernisation program, then please email us at



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