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Stark reality on Wisconsin dairy farms impacted by COVID-19

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
A tanker full of milk backs up to a storage lagoon at Golden E Dairy in West Bend dumps the milk into the lagoon on April 1, 2020. Golden E was one of several farms through Dairy Farmers of America that was asked to dump milk in the midst of COVID-19.

WEST BEND - Late in the day on March 31, Chris Elbe, of Golden E Dairy, got a phone call that brought him near tears. A central region manager from Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) asked if they would be willing to dump their milk from their 2,400 cow herd. 

By the next day, April 1, Ryan Elbe said they were told they would be dumping until Monday, April 6, and would be informed at that time whether or not they could stop dumping the milk.

Rumors that were circulating on some farms across Wisconsin that milk processing plants or cooperatives would require farmers to dump milk due to decreased demand from the shutdown of schools and restaurants from COVID-19 had come true.

Tankers loaded with milk, containing roughly 220,000 pounds of milk, were backed up to the farm's storage lagoon at Golden  and emptied. Ryan Elbe said they then changed valves so after the cows are milked, three times a day, the milk will go down the drain and out into the storage lagoon until they are told they can stop dumping. 

Kimberly Elbe posted a photo on Facebook saying, "This is the reality on farms in Wisconsin right now."

Ryan said he thinks they were asked to dump milk because they are a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). He believes Golden E is one of several CAFOs who were asked to dump milk.

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"Because of the regulations and the measures that occur for the DNR when it is dumped, it's a lot easier for them just pick a CAFO farm, in this instance several CAFO farms, and just begin dumping milk into their lagoons because they're already regulated," said Elbe. "All they (producers) have to do is tell them how much they did end up dumping and where."

From what Elbe knew as of last night, he said he "did the math" and thinks their farm accounts for "roughly 3% of the milk that is getting dumped right now."

"Being that we've just been asked to continue dumping until Monday, and then they'll let us know if we have to further continue dumping, this isn't a small issue," Elbe said.

All the local farmers in the area were surprised to learn of the milk dumping. 

"The first impression I got was that they are all very upset, even if it's not happening to them. They're upset to hear that it is happening to us," said Elbe. "But I think that everybody's just got to take a deep breath and calm down and go from there."

Ryan Elbe, left, and his father, Chris, talk in their milk house while fresh milk gushes down a drain Wednesday at the Elbe family's Golden E Dairy near West Bend. Because the dairy plant has more milk than it can process, the farm is forced to dump 25,000 gallons a day from its 2,400 milking cows.

Elbe said there is an open line of communication with DFA.

"I think it's all happening so fast, they're trying to figure it out as they're telling us what to do," Elbe added. 

DFA told Golden E they would "get paid accordingly," for the milk they dump based off the average of last week's components, according to Elbe. 

Right now, everything is a haze, Elbe explained. "I can see it in my father's eyes." 

"There's a lot of pride that goes into producing milk and getting to the end product and to have it, for the lack of a better term, all go up in flames, it really knocks down the ambition level," Elbe said. 

For now, Golden E Dairy is doing everything the same for the cows, continuing to give them the best diet possible with quality feed.

"We don't want anything to change for the cows," said Elbe. "The only thing happening is the tankers are not leaving the driveway. From a diet standpoint — animal welfare — that's all going to stay the same. The only thing is that our milkman is going to have some time off."

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.