We have all seen pictures in the past several weeks of milk being dumped down the drain at the farm and also pictures of empty shelves in the dairy case at the store. Everyone wondered how that could happen. The answer to that question has its roots in the relative short shelf life of milk and the sudden and unprecedented change in milk demand.
The last several years have been a time of financial stress to our nation’s dairy farmers. That is made evident just by looking at the number of dairy farmers that have sold their cows and stopped producing milk. In recent months, it was looking like the dairy farmers have started to see the light at the end of the slump in dairy prices. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.
Over the years, dairy producers and processors have adapted to the month-to-month changes in milk production and consumption. They have adapted so there is a steady supply of milk products year round.
At one time, when cows were mostly fed on pastures, most farmers bred their cows so they would have their calves in the spring and early summer. That was done because that is the time of year when the pastures were most plentiful. Just like people when we work harder, we need to eat more. When a cow is producing a lot of milk to feed her calf, and in modern times when the farmer is selling her milk, she requires a lot of good feed. Then the following fall and wintertime when the pasture is not growing as well, the cows do not require as much or as good a quality feed because their milk output has dropped off.
The problem with that natural rhythm in Mother Nature is that it causes the peak milk production to be in early summer. Early summer is when the schools let out for the summer and total milk consumption drops off drastically during the summertime. What that means is that the time of year when it is less costly to feed a herd of cows on pasture and easy to get higher production is the time of year that milk consumption drops.
Because of that problem, farmers have turned away from relying on pasture as much for feeding their dairy cows. There have been improvements in the way dairy feed is produced, harvested, and stored in order for milk to be produced during the times of the year when consumption of fluid milk is at its peak.
Almost one month ago, along with most of us, the dairy industry was faced with a problem that is unprecedented; the schools closed almost three months early. Many would think that would not make much difference to the dairy industry, but it does. But, kids just drink more milk in school than they do when they are home. Another problem that happened about the same day the schools closed is many restaurants closed. Some dairy processors that produce the small butter packets and other items that are used mainly in restaurants have stopped making their products because demand for those kinds of items is almost nonexistent.
What also changed on the day that the schools closed, the milk that was being consumed in the schools went almost to zero. There is still some milk being used in the free meal program at most schools. At the same time when everyone was practicing social distancing and consuming most of their meals at home, the demand for milk from the dairy shelves skyrocketed. Milk sales in retail locations almost overnight increased about 50% unexpectedly. That was caused by two things: panic buying and also because the kids were home drinking the milk they did consume. When we would see empty shelves in the dairy case, it was never caused because of a shortage of milk. It was caused because the demand overnight changed from half pint containers being used in the schools to the half gallon and full gallon containers that most use in our homes. I know of one local dairy processer that was selling half pint containers very cheap if you would buy it by the case because they had so much on hand ready to be shipped to the schools.
The adequate supply of milk has always been here. It just took a little time for the dairy processors to adjust to the sudden change in where the milk was being sold. Now that the change has been almost completed the milk shelves are not empty but that still leaves the dairy industry with a big problem. Total dairy consumption is down almost 15% with all the changes caused by the pandemic. Some of the excess milk can be used by producing products that have a much longer shelf life than fluid milk such as powdered milk and cheeses. But it will not take long for the available storage for those products to fill up. That is why there are reports of milk being dumped down the drain or being spread on fields. In an effort to help local dairy farmers and to keep a healthy diet in these unprecedented times, consume more dairy products.
This over supply of dairy products is one problem among many caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of us needs to do all we can to help others as we work through these unprecedented times, including continuing to buy the dairy products you need for you and your family.