Strong dollar hitting goat dairies hard

MaryBeth Matzek
Special Contributor
Wisconsin’s milking goat herds are now finding themselves in the middle of an international trade squeeze.

A strong U.S. dollar has led to lower prices for Wisconsin goat dairies.

Industry analysts predict an increase in frozen curd imports will lower the amount of money paid to goat dairies, with the expected decrease between $1 and $4 per cwt.

Tom Considine, a goat dairy operator from Portage and vice president of the Wisconsin Dairy Goat Association, said some farmers received letters from cheese plants that they may lower prices for fluid milk. He also heard another plant sending a letter to farmers that they should not expect an increase this year.

Considine said goat milk prices change quite a bit. Using frozen curd “was an issue a few years ago as well. Prices did not go down for our farm, but they did not rise either,” he said. “We were stagnant for a time, but the market overcame the frozen reserves and prices went up dramatically as cheese plants competed with each other for milk.”

Frozen curd provides some cheese makers with a cheaper option compared to fresh fluid milk. The curd is primarily used in soft cheeses, but not hard cheeses. Chevre, the most popular goat cheese, can be made from frozen curd. This allows U.S. goat cheese plants to import frozen curd to make the popular cheese at a lower cost than buying fresh milk from American farmers.

Larry Hedrich of Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative of Wisconsin said some farmers have contacted him asking if he has capacity to take on additional milk.

“It is harder and harder for our farmers to compete,” he said. “Unfortunately, some companies will use frozen curd to save a nickel. Farmers do not make a lot of money selling their milk.”

Due to the way frozen curd is categorized, the USDA has a hard time tracking just how much is imported into the United States from Europe or Mexico, Hedrich said. “Many companies have tons of frozen curd on hand so they are either blending it with fluid milk or just going with the frozen curd,” he said.

Importing frozen curd is nothing new since demand has traditionally been higher than what U.S. goat dairies could produce, said Katie Fuhrmann, a cheese marker with LaClare Family Creamery in Malone. Now that the industry has increased its supply of fluid goat milk, cheese makers are still turning to frozen curd since it costs less money, she said.

“The American goat dairy industry has really grown in the past few years and it would be great if companies could use that fresh milk from our farms instead of using frozen curd from overseas,” Fuhrmann said. “As a producer, it is a challenge to build a sustainable market for your milk. If prices go down too much, you just can’t afford to farm anymore. So many people do not know that frozen curd from overseas is being used in a product they think was made here in the United States.”

Considine said cheese makers tell him they prefer using fresh milk vs. frozen curd. “I believe the market will dictate how long or how much frozen curd is used,” he said. “All farmers worry about the possibility (of lower prices) but trust the cheese plants know their marketing and need to put out a quality product to ensure they do not lose their market share.”