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Is the food future any clearer? Not yet!

John Oncken
For over a century the dairy industry has sought cows that look better and produce more milk.

The whole world is in an uproar – or has it stopped? I guess it has pretty much stopped if you are a professional chef and your restaurant is closed because of the coronavirus disaster. Or the upheaval continues if you are a nurse or doctor in an area where virus cases continue to rise.

Farmers are farming

What if you are a farmer? It depends on how you are farming. Dairy farmers are milking cows, perhaps fewer in number and without the high-powered milk producing ration. But, the milk still flows and is made into a myriad of products which are flying off the grocery shelves with frightful speed.

The meat processing plants seem to be back and approaching full speed and ready to attack the backlog of beef and pork that has been growing heavier by the day on the farms of America.

There is plenty of cheese for all.

The weekend rains across Wisconsin should give the mostly planted fields of corn and soybeans a running start to that “good, even great, crop year” that farmers always look forward to with optimism.

Sun is shining on dairy prices

And the sun is even shining on the milk price as those who watch the daily activity on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and cheer the rising cheese prices which were doing the same thing last fall and winter but came to  screeching halt in early March.  Since April 13 when both Block and Barrel Cheddar bottomed at $1.01 per pound to today (May 19) when Block Cheddar experienced an upsurge of 84 cents per pound to $1.85 and Barrels up 77 cents to $1.7825. The result will be welcomed with bigger producer milk checks down the road.  

Remember: The dairy economy was just emerging from four years of doom and gloom late last fall and early winter when the coronavirus changed everything. 

David and JoAnn Wiederholt have owned and operated Riverdale Ag Service since 1983.  David says his farmer customers are “keeping on farming.”

Suffered from price

David  Wiederholt, owner of Riverdale Ag Service at Muscoda is involved in lots of agriculture including feed, seed, fertilizer, chemicals and grain marketing, making him a good source of information of the on-farm situation during this unheard of era.  

“Our farmers have been suffering from the lower milk price after starting strong last fall with what looked to be a good year ahead,” Wiederholt says. “The coronavirus has changed so many things and our dairy farmers are changing their cattle rations away from adding more milk. That’s something they’ve never had to do before. Yes, there are some government programs coming out but we don’t know the details yet.”   

Wiederholt asked an unanswerable question: ”Do you think working with livestock adds some immunity to fight the virus?" So far, I don’t know or have heard of anyone who has  been affected. My answer was no. I have no idea but I think this is a very rural area with most people sort of staying put with very few people coming and going. But who knows?

Riverdale Ag Service serves farmers, wildlife lovers, bird feeders, homeowners and hobbyists within about a 30 mile range of Muscoda.  Wiederholt says his dairy nutrition business has declined since the coronavirus and milk surplus began.

The government - here to help...maybe

As for the government program talked about, here is what U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced concerning the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program on April 17:

“Funding for the $19 billion program will come from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion economic relief package (one trillion is a million million, a thousand billion. It's a one followed by 12 zeros) signed into law on March 27. The program includes $16 billion in direct payments to agricultural producers to recoup losses suffered after the outbreak disrupted prices and supply chains. The program will also assist producers with additional adjustment and marketing costs resulting from lost demand and short-term oversupply."

Is more trade with China the answer to the dairy surplus?

New details emerge

The USDA released some details of the CFAP program on Tuesday, and farmers who have experienced losses due to the Covid-19 outbreak can start getting the paperwork together to apply for relief from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new assistance program beginning May 26 through the FSA.

$16 billion

Last Friday some additional comments were made: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a combination of $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and $3 billion in bulk government purchases of commodities to prop up the collapsed farm economy.  The direct payments will include $2.9 billion for dairy farmers and $5.1 billion for cattle farmers and ranchers, the agency said. There is also $1.6 billion for pork producers, $3.9 billion for row crop producers, $2.1 billion for specialty crops and $500 million for other crops." 

Are mega herds still the future of dairy?

The USDA is purchasing $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat in an effort to stimulate markets.

The agency said it will begin with the procurement of about $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products, $100 million in meat products and $100 million in fresh fruits and vegetables. Distributors and wholesalers will provide boxes of the commodities to food banks, community and faith-based organizations for distribution to the needy.” 

Exports up

US dairy exports have topped year-earlier levels for the seventh straight month in March, this despite disruptions resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, the US Dairy Export Council reports. In March, US suppliers shipped 190,456 tons of milk powders, cheese, whey products, lactose and butterfat, 2% more than the year before. This is the highest figure since May 2018.  

What will dairying be like when these kids grow up?

Regardless of the duration of the COVID-19 era, I’d guess we’ll see major changes in agriculture and our daily life when we’re back to normal, but what that normal will be is the question.

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