Dairying:  A challenge, quandary, dilemma

John Oncken
No breakfast at Gus’ diner on Saturday morning. It’s closed.

In the 27 years or so that I have been writing this weekly column it’s been a fun effort relating the successes of farm families, the growth of agri-businesses and the show ring winnings of cattle exhibitors young and old. New dairy products were coming on the market, new dairy facilities were being built and the better management and cattle genetics were adding to the growth in dairy cattle quality and milk production. 

Agriculture was the place to be and I was much involved: as a county agent (Clark County), farm TV broadcaster (Green Bay), advertising manager (ABS), dairy  promoter, organization builder (Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin) and for these many years a communications guy. 

Always a happy day until...

Over all those careers and years every day was a day of optimism and happy thoughts — until about a month ago when the coronavirus messed everything up. The first few weeks it was a distant event, a long ways away in China. Then it snuck into the US and we all were told to stay home. There was plenty of food and milk in the stores and my farmer friends kept on farming.  

The world changed

Then the world of agriculture changed: Fast and for the worse as schools closed, sports all went on hiatus, restaurants closed and all the nations big trade shows went dark until the fall, next year or whenever.  

A dairy farmer will find it difficult to sell cows at a sale today because of the overloaded market.

The result? Milk drinking dropped off the cliff as milk wasn’t being consumed at the events not being held. The spring BarBQ season didn’t get started, the big cheese boards at mega conferences and seminars weren't happening and the school students were without their milk and in many cases, lunch. 

What to do?

In a hurry, the dairy processors realized they were in deep trouble: What were they going to do with all the dairy products they were making from the milk the nation’s herd of 9.3 million cows who were still producing at an ever increasing pace?  

The milk for drinking can only be stored a couple of weeks — then what? The small cheese factories have contracts with buyers who in turn sell the cheese to stores or restaurants that may have lost customers and don’t have storage space and few dairy processors have much storage space. 

Big herds are also dumping milk.

Cut production

Then what? The dairy processors began asking their producers to cut back on their milk flow — something easier said than done. Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the biggest dairy farmer cooperative in all of dairyland with 14,500 dairy farmer-members with more than 8,500 dairy farms in 48 states and revenue of over $13.5 billion and 6,000 employees was the first dairy processor to ask some of their farmer patrons to not send their milk, rather, to dump it, somehow, somewhere. 

Still dumping

In last week’s column I wrote that the Leedle family’s Black Cat Dairy of some 500 cows and eight milking robots at Lake Geneva began dumping milk into their manure lagoon on April 3. I talked with son Jason yesterday and he said they were still dumping and had hauled many thousands of gallons (and manure) from the lagoon onto a farm field as fertilizer. 

Jennifer and Tom Leedle and their son Jason own Black Cat Dairy at Lake Geneva. They have dumped milk for  two weeks.

Are you still being paid for the milk by DFA, was my question? 

“That’s what DFA tells us and I surely hope so,” Jason says. “We’ll know in a few days when the check is supposed to come.”

Rumors that Grande Cheese has told patrons to cut their milk flow by 20% have circulated for some time and according to a dairy producer friend with a large dairy, that has happened to him. 

The Grande Cheese company has long been known for accepting only the highest quality milk, mostly from bigger dairies, and marketing cheese to independent  pizza restaurants.across the country

What can you do?

Dairy farmers who are told to cut their milk production face a real dilemma — how do they do it. You can’t just turn a cow off  — drying off (quitting milking) can lead to a myriad of health problems. 

The first thought, of course, is to sell some cows. A good idea that probably won’t work considering that lots of producers might have the same idea and the market for cows is already pretty dead because of poor milk prices and a glut of cows. 

So what to do? “I can dump milk short term,” my dairy friend says, “but, long term, I don’t know.”

No one knows

Nor does anyone else!  But there are some existing government programs being discussed and maybe refurbished. 

Wisconsin’s Ag Secretary, Randy Romanski, wants dairy farmers to report milk dumping. “This allows our agency to further advocate for the dairy industry. The thing to note is it’s confidential, and this would only be reported in general terms, number of farms, amount of milk.” 

Is there a cheese surplus? Probably, with the changed consumer buying pattern of today.

Romanski says right now, the state has no clear picture of how much milk is really being dumped, and the information is not coming in through the processors. He says knowing the extent of the milk dumping might help producers later in the recovery process. "DATCP could further substantiate the toll on dairy farms in our ongoing effort."

In Arizona

Arizona dairy farms are having to dump a million pounds of milk each day due to overproduction after sales have dropped due to the coronavirus. 

In the past few weeks, milk sales are down 85%, Keith Murfield, CEO of United Dairymen of Arizona said. This has resulted in the farms having to dump all the excess milk because there is no extra capacity in the United States to hold it. 

"Food service has hurt us tremendously. The product that goes to fast-food restaurants like cheese for McDonald's ... was cut back," Murfield said. 

Will there be a World Dairy Expo this fall?  Hopefully, yes.

He says this has caused a direct hit to milk sales. Murfield said the grocery stores imposing limits on milk sales for customers does not help the situation, either. 

"I don't understand why they're putting limits. There's capacity for more gallons to be produced," Murfield said. 

"This is very difficult for the men and women producing milk. A lot of hard work goes into milking cows and when we can't get it off farm it has to go down the drain and that is very difficult," Murfield said. 

Arizona too

United Dairymen of Arizona has been meeting to discuss options to help lessen the amount of milk being produced each day. Some options include changing feeding rations to try to produce less milk or only milk two times a day instead of three. 

"I've had 45 years in the business and I have never seen anything like this," Murfield said. 

Casey Dugan, owner of Desperado Dairy, said production cannot be stopped because the cows need to be milked to stay healthy. He also said dairy farms are working to set up donations of milk to the United Food Bank. People can purchase the milk online at arizonamilk.org and then a donation will be set up. They are also donating 400 milk coolers to Arizona school districts to provide to students who are out of school. 

Quandary, predicament, plight, challenge, dilemma: Take your choice, whatever, we need a miracle — fast!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.