Milk disposal on Wisconsin farms no April Fool's joke

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
All Chris and Ryan Elbe can do is stand and watch as while tankers full of milk are dumped into the storage lagoon at Golden E Dairy east of West Bend, WI.

Just when farmers had begun seeing signs of recovery after enduring a long-lived economic downturn in the ag industry, shock waves from the coronavirus pandemic are dimming those hopes in a big way.

In recent weeks, rumors have begun circulating on farms across Wisconsin and beyond that milk processing plants or cooperatives would require farmers to dump milk due to decreased demand from the shutdown of schools and restaurants as well as softening demand in the food service and export markets.

While some farms received letters from their processing plants asking them to plan and prepare for the possibility of dumping milk, dairy producers have confirmed this week that the nation's largest cooperative Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) has asked large dairy farms (also known as CAFOs) to dump milk starting this week. At this time those dairies are being compensated for their dumped product.

Kristen Coady, vice president of corporate communications for DFA said while they are working to ensure their farm families' milk continues to be picked up, and plants continue to operate, the processing giant says the uncertainty of COVID-19 and evolving consumer buying habits are changing the demand for dairy products.

"While we initially saw increased demand at grocery stores as consumers stocked up on many products like dairy, in anticipation of potential quarantines and shelter-in-place orders, the retail demand is starting to level off," Coady said. "For this reason, we anticipate that milk will be more readily available at grocery stores in the coming weeks. We've also seen reduced needs in the food service sector with schools and restaurant closures, which has resulted in an overall surplus of milk."

Coady said the sudden changes in demand are resulting in uncertainty and are forcing some dairy manufacturers to cut or change production schedules or build inventories.

"Due to the excess milk and plants already operating at capacity, there is more milk right now than space available in processing plants," she said. "This, in combination with the perishable nature of our product, has resulted in a need to dispose of raw milk on farms, in come circumstances."

Coady said DFA is working with customers to find additional options to retain as much value from the members' milk as possible including finding additional venues to sell the milk to.

Call to Washington DC

News of milk dumping in Wisconsin has spurred state officials to reach out to the federal government in finding solutions to the growing dilemma on the state's farms. At the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, interim Wisconsin Ag Secretary Randy Romanski contacted the USDA, urging the agency to step in and support the dairy industry amid concerns about milk disposal during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

"In a time when many people are already food-insecure, it's more important than ever that we get Wisconsin's nutritious commodities in the hands of consumers that need them the most," Evers told the USDA and Wisconsin's Congressional delegation. "I'm hopeful that our federal partners understand the urgency of the need here, and will take action accordingly."

Romanski said the pandemic has created tremendous fear and uncertainty in the agriculture community at a very difficult time.

"Wisconsin's dairy farms have endured five years of low milk prices and are now watching their future prices drop," Romanski said.

He pointed out that the state's grain and specialty crop farmers are cautiously gearing up for another growing season, wondering about access to input supplies and what Mother Nature may send their way.

"On top of all this, farmers are now worrying about what happens if products cannot move on and off their farm. As the dairy state, our immediate concern is what if a dairy processor closes its doors today and the milk hauler does not come to the farm? What if a bulk tank is not emptied before the next milking?" Romanski said.

The interim Ag Secretary says that emergency milk disposal is a devastating financial and emotional loss to a dairy farmer and a detrimental loss to the food supply chain.

"We want to ensure that milk continues to move from the farm, through the processing plants and onto food shelves," he said.

Relief sought

Ag group leaders representing dairy producers around the state also sent a letter to U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, urging his agency to use the extensive purchasing power afforded by the CARES Act to bring "much relief to the stressed American dairy industry".

Groups representing farmers include: Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association; Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative; Dairy Business Association; Cooperative Network; Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation; Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Farmers Union.

"With 80 percent of Americans under order to shelter in their homes, hundreds of thousands of restaurants, schools, and other food service outlets have closed or significantly reduced offerings, which means cheese and butter manufacturers have lost their largest market," the group wrote. "While retail sales have increased in past weeks, they are now leveling, and orders are slowing. Dairy manufacturers and processors also have seen their export markets decimated."

The group also pointed out that many circumstances faced by farmers are simply beyond their control at this critical time.

"Commodity dairy prices have plummeted and will result in milk prices lower than many farms can handle to sustain long-term viability," the group said. "Direct relief to dairy farmers and a substantial purchase of dairy commodities by USDA can ensure our industry will remain fiscally able to function in its primary role of feeding the nation and the world."

The USDA is asked to consider purchases of nonfat dry milk, butter, cheddar styles, mozzarella, and other Italian-styles of cheese, both in bulk formats and in formats purposed for use by restaurants and food service vendors.

"We are also asking USDA to look at the different means available to the department to make farmers whole for the milk they have produced, but needed to dispose, or for which they received drastically reduced payments," the group stated.

While Romanski is well aware that consumer preferences and buying methods are altered during this national emergency, he said now is the time for the USDA to keep the food supply chain moving by purchasing surplus commodities.

Purchases by the federal government would support food banks and nutrition assistance programs as well as contribute to the school lunch program which continues to deliver breakfast and lunches to youth across the country.

"It makes no sense to allow nutritious products like milk and dairy products to be disposed of when people who are food insecure can consume those products to supplement their diets," Romanski said. "The long-term success of our agriculture industry and nation's prosperity rests on what we do right now to ensure our family farms are still here at the end of this national emergency."

While a cooperative group of farmers organized to dump milk during the Wisconsin milk strike of 1933 as an attempt to raise the price of milk paid to producers during the Great Depression, farmers are wondering whether or not they will be forced to dump milk 87 years later due to potential disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Extension of DMC program

Romanski pointed out that prior to the signup deadline for the Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) program, the outlook for dairy prices in 2020 was much brighter.

"Economists were predicting higher prices, which would have allowed dairy farmers to meet their cost of production without the risk management tool," Romanski said. "This is no longer the case and futures are now telling a different story."

Romanski is urging federal officials to re-open the DMC sign-up period, allowing dairy farmers to make informed decisions based on the impacts of the national emergency and their farm's current situation.

"Farmers may choose to buy additional coverage that will enable them to weather this pandemic and continue to contribute to the state's dairy industry for another generation," he said. 

Romanski said the state's farmers, food processors and consumers need support during these unprecedented times.

"I am aware that USDA has taken actions during COVID-19 response by waiving restrictions and expanding liabilities in programs," he said in his letter. "Making surplus food purchases and re-opening the Dairy Margin Coverage program are two additional tools in your toolbox and I hope you will give them immediate consideration."

Dairy veterinarian Kent Bindl, from Sheboygan, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that the dairy industry has "reached a new level of despair". 

“As a veterinarian for the past 18 years, I have seen the resiliency and optimistic nature of my clients be tried over and over again.  However, today is different. Many have been told there is no place to process today's loads and milk is being pumped into their manure storage facilities. The pain these producers are feeling today is palpable.”

Plan and prepare

Unfortunately agriculture is not immune to COVID-19, said Tina Kohlman, UW Madison Extension dairy and livestock agent for Fond du Lac County.

More farms are likely to experience milk dumping in the coming weeks. The recent dairy crisis that began in late 2014 underscored changes in agriculture that have been taking place for decades but sped up more than many expected. 

Kohlman released an email confirming that some dairy farmers received a letter from processors to "plan and prepare" for the possibility of having to dump their milk.

She cited various scenarios attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic that may force farmers to unload their milk including potential closures of processing plants and quarantining of employees due to a confirmed positive COVID-19 case or milk haulers unable to provide services due to confirmed COVID-19 cases as well as the decreased demand, inability to switch from wholesale to retail packaging, in addition to the annual "spring flush" of milk. 

Tina Kohlman

She stressed that most of the letters asked farmers to "plan and prepare", not requiring them to dump milk at this time.

However, Chris Elbe, of Golden E Dairy in West Bend, received a call late on March 31, from a Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) central area manager asking if they would begin dumping their milk, which included trailers that were already loaded. 

What seemed to be a cruel joke on April Fool's Day, son Ryan Elbe said they were told they would be dumping until Monday, April 6, at which point DFA would let them know if they would need to continue dumping.

Semi trailers already full of milk were backed up to the lagoon to be emptied of their contents. The 2,400 head of dairy cows produce 220,000 lbs. of milk each day, filling three to four semi-tankers.

Kohman says impacted dairies are reminded to follow the protocol set up by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and WDATCP in a memorandum generated last week.

They’re asking impacted dairies to make sure that, if they’re forced to dump milk, they maintain a record on volumes that are dumped for future reference.

Farms that need immediate assistance are being asked to call the Farm Assistance Hotline: 800-942-2472.

Ryan Elbe says in the last 24 hours alone roughly a quarter million pounds have been dumped into the farm's manure lagoon. The farm expects to continue dumping milk through Monday.

Emergency Disposal Plan

As part of "plan and prepare", Wisconsin DATCP and DNR created "Emergency Disposal of Milk For Dairy Farms During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency" fact sheet.  The fact sheet reviews the rule changes and regulations that would apply in this type of situation.

You are advised to create and maintain a record of every milk disposal:

  • In the event that state or federal programs become available to help farmers with lost revenue during the COVID-19 public health emergency, you are advised to create a record that includes the date, volume, reason, and location of disposal.
  •  Maintain all records, so that documentation can be produced upon request.

What are the DNR and DATCP proposing to help dairy farms with this emergency:

  • For permitted CAFOs, during the current COVID-19 emergency, on a case-by-case basis DNR can reduce the number of days required for public comment for modifications to a nutrient management plan (NMP), such as adding fields, which will allow CAFOs flexibility to quickly change their land application plans if necessary.
  • For non-permitted farms, DATCP staff will assist with updating NMPs at no cost. If staff are not able to assist directly, DATCP will determine how to get help with updates to NMPs and the best way to assist with any cost.
  • Also for non-permitted farms, the DNR is working the with Governor to waive the requirement in NR 151.07 to comply with an NMP if emergency land spreading of milk is the only option available and a dairy cannot modify its NMP to accommodate the milk disposal. If finalized, this waiver would be granted on a case-by-case basis made by DNR only during current COVID-19 emergency.
  • These emergency actions may not cause an unpermitted discharge of pollutants to waters of the state.

Environmental concerns:

  • Discharge of milk to surface water or groundwater is a discharge of pollutants in the same way that discharge of manure or process wastewater would be.
  • Milk contains higher concentrations of nutrients than manure and has high biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) which can cause detrimental impact to surface water including fish kills.
  • Milk will have a very strong odor as it decomposes.

Land application of milk is regulated in the same way as land application of process wastewater:

  • Milk is considered to be process wastewater under DNR rules governing animal feeding operations. [See NR 243.03 (53) and NR 151.015(16) Wis. Adm. Code]
  • For permitted CAFOs, land application of milk must conform with your NR 243 nutrient management plan (NMP). Land applications, including nutrient content, must be tracked in the NMP.
  • For non-permitted operations, DNR regulations prohibit "significant discharge" of process wastewater, including milk, to surface and groundwater. [See NR 151.055, Wis. Adm. Code]
  • For all operations, land applications of milk to frozen or snow-covered ground requires that you follow the rules in NR 214. Contact the DNR for details.
  • Land application of milk may not cause an unpermitted discharge of pollutants to waters of the state.

What should you do if you have milk needing emergency disposal:

  • One immediate option is to dispose of the milk in an existing manure storage structure, especially when expecting rainfall amounts that increase the chance of surface runoff and water impacts from land applied milk. When feasible, you can land apply the storage contents according to your NMP.
  • The following recommendations for land applying manure and process wastewater, including milk, should be used to reduce the risk of groundwater or surface water contamination:
    • Use the farm’s 590 NMP to determine the best places to apply the milk to meet the nutrient needs of this year’s crop and adjust other planned nutrient applications to account for the nutrient content of the milk.
    • Milk should be applied uniformly across a field using liquid manure application equipment.
      • APPLICATION RATE: If you do not have a nutrient management plan, take care to follow the nutrient needs of the crop where you land-spread milk so you do not over apply or cause runoff or leaching.
        • Applying 4,500 gallons of milk per acre will provide about 200 pounds of N, 81 pounds of P205 and 67 pounds of K2O.
        • All of the N and P in milk are considered immediately plant available, so care must be taken to apply milk to fields that have the lowest risk of groundwater or surface water contamination. Applying to fields with a perennial crop or those recently seeded increase the opportunity for plant uptake of the nutrient applied.
        • Consider making multiple applications with less volume per application to reduce the risk of nutrient losses.
      • Finding appropriate land for spreading may be difficult during the growing season, so plan to apply on land that:
        • Does not contain very sandy soils
        • Does not have shallow soils or high groundwater levels
        • Was not in alfalfa last year
        • Has not had manure or fertilizer applied this spring or even last fall
        • Is not too steep
        • Is away from streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands
        • Is in pasture that do not tends not to experience runoff
      • Consider injecting or incorporating land-applied milk to reduce the risk of runoff to surface waters.
      • Applications should be made only when heavy rainfall is not expected in the near future.
  •  Milk will have a very strong odor as it decomposes, so apply to fields farthest from neighbors if possible.
  • Milk can be utilized for animal feed by the producer, however it may not be sold or distributed as animal feed unless the producer has a commercial feed license and the milk can be labeled accordingly. Questions regarding distributing milk for animal feed should be directed to DATCP. (Wis. Stat. § 94.72(5)(a)and(b), Wis. Stat. S 94.72(2))
  • The solids in milk may plug valves, tanks, pipes, hoses and other storage and spreading equipment. Rinsing may reduce plugging.
  • Exercise extreme caution if considering adding milk to anaerobic digesters. Consult the digester company before adding milk to the digester to determine appropriate volumes of milk that can be added without negatively impacting the digester’s microbial communities.

“Please remember, it is better to plan and be prepared than scrambling for options to this situation and any other type of risk that you may face with your farm operation,” Kohlman said. 

 See UW Extension publication on managing waste milk for additional information:

DNR Contact: Chris Clayton at 608-333-9265 or DATCP Contact: Lacey Cochart at 608-224-4603 or

Wisconsin State Farmer's Carol Spaeth-Bauer contributed to this story.