The dairy industry continues to struggle, but it’s facing a new a new struggle amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Farms across the country are being asked to dump what milk is in their tank down the drain,” said Penn State Cooperative Extension dairy educator Amber Yutzy. “Unortunately, there’s just no place to go with it.”
What is described as an over supply is frustrating to dairy producers.
“The shelves in the stores are empty or there’s a purchasing limit, so it’s upsetting to producers because they know there’s plenty of milk, we just need to get it to the stores.”
Yutzy said there are several layers to the issue.
“Herds typically freshen this time of year to get more milk, but the COVID-19 panic buying that was taking place about three weeks ago is a lot of what’s going here,” she said.
Immediately following the rash of panic buying, Yutzy pointed out all schools and restaurants shut down, which eliminated the need for bulk butter and cheese that would usually go to bulk exports.
“Butter and cheese plants are sitting on a full storage of bulk products,” she said. “They are operating for households, but that’s not the large quantities like those exports and restaurant orders would be.”
As a result, the milk that would be used to make butter and cheese is being redirected to fluid milk.
“Three weeks ago, people were buying gallons of milk at a time,” said Yutzy. “The panic buying has slowed, but there’s still a lot of milk because storages are full. A lot of the issue has to do with fluid milk. The companies can’t keep up with the demand of what farmers are sending them.
Yutzy said there are other issues in other states, too.
“A lot of the coops are backed up, waiting to unload, and some plants, not in Pennsylvania, have had employees get sick and they’ve had to shut down and sanitize, so milk wasn’t bottled,” she said. “It’s a domino effect. It also relates to how stores order milk. They want to make sure they’re not purchasing more than they need and there’s still a backlog of getting the product from the bottling plant to the store.”
Yutzy said she’s received no reports of county dairy farmers having to dump milk.
“The closest I’ve heard has been in Clinton County,” she said. “The majority of the dumping has been in eastern Pennsylvania — Lancaster, Lebanon, Berks area, but it started in the northern part of the state.”
For farmers, dumping milk down the drain is equivalent to dumping money.
“It really depends on the farm size,” said Yutzy, noting dairy farmers are paid by the 100 pounds of milk. “The larger the farm, the more they would lose. Some large farms could be losing millions of dollars.”
While milk prices have been low for the past few years, dairy producers had seen prices starting to go up, but then the effects of the coronavirus on the market started in February.
“When the coronavirus got to the U.S., export markets were starting to tank,” said Yutzy. Prices were already bad, bad, but they had started to go up, and then they tanked again. They are very low — very low for everyone.”
Prices have dropped about $4 per 100 pounds of milk, making them even low compared to the past four or five years. How long it will last and if it will improve depends on how long the pandemic lasts.
“This is impacting all food commodities,” said Yutzy, pointing out there are other issues, too. “We’re looking at can farmers make it? Can they get it to the plant? Do we have enough manpower to process it? Eventually we’ll all see some sort of normal, but how long that will be, no one knows.”
Yutzy said projections are low through July, but there is some hope for farmers.
“Things are cropping up every day with the new stimulus package that can help small businesses and self-employed businesses. Dairy farmers fall into these standards. It doesn’t have to say farm. They are small, self-employed businesses and they will be able to take advantage of some loans,” she said. “There are things to help, but it’s just help, not a savior.”
She pointed out struggles amid the pandemic could be the end for some farmers.
“Unfortunately, this might end some farms that were already struggling,” said Yutzy.
Yutzy said there are things the general public can do to help, aside from consuming real dairy products.
“If they see signs that say there is a limit to one or two dairy products or if you see empty shelves, the American Dairy Association Northeast is asking people to take photos and email them,” she said.
Emails should contain the photo and the location and time of the sign or empty shelves and can be sent to Beth Meyer at email@example.com.
“We’re working to educate stores to take down those signs,” she said. “We’re working on behalf of farmers to get those signs down. If you see empty shelves, the American Dairy Association wants to know about it so they can reach out to the guys at the top to get these products into the stores.”
Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.