Craig Furseth never thought he’d see fresh milk dumped into the same space he disposes manure.
The third-generation dairy farmer from Stoughton expected this year to be a rebound year for dairy farmers after five years of low milk prices resulted in 800 Wisconsin dairy farms closing in 2019.
But COVID-19 shattered that hope.
Two of the largest markets for fluid milk and cheese are school districts and restaurants, which have either closed or been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This surplus of milk has resulted in some dairy cooperatives, which oversee milk marketing for their members and handle shipping logistics, asking farmers to produce less milk.
Because cows still have to be milked, that results in farmers dumping excess. And the milk they sell is at a lower price.
Milk prices had begun to increase in November 2019 and were up to $21.30 per hundredweight (100 pounds) in December. That was up $5.10 from the previous year — a salvation for dairy farmers.
Then, at the end of March 2020, prices plummeted $4 in a week, Furseth said.
Furseth, who owns 197 cows and produces 17,000 pounds or roughly 1,900 gallons of milk per day, was asked by his co-op, Dairy Farmers of America, to produce 10% less milk from May 1 to July 31.
The experience has been different for John Alme, another Stoughton farmer.
A month after schools closed, Alme still hadn’t had to dump any milk or been asked to reduce production. He believes that’s because of the diversity of processors that work with the co-op he’s a member of, Foremost Farms co-op out of Baraboo.
Alme, who has been a dairy farmer his entire life, said his co-op sells to a variety of plants that produce cheese, butter and dried milk products and has a contract with Kwik Trip to provide milk in its stores.
“They are in a position where they can ship milk to different plants if things like this happen,” Alme said.
Several organizations that represent dairy farmers have asked the USDA and local entities to help by buying the excess dairy products from farmers and give them to food pantries, nutritional assistant programs and other sources. And on Friday, April 17, President Donald Trump announced a $19 billion aid package to agriculture farmers.
As farmers wait for aid, the daily operations of dairy farms must remain relatively unchanged – the cows still need to be milked, regardless if there is a reduction in demand.
For the Furseth farm, the cows are milked three times a day for three hours at a time, and each cow eats roughly 130 pound of feed per day – more if they are carrying a calf. Other expenses like electricity, veterinary bills and payroll continue to stack up.
But Furseth and Alme point out that farmers are resilient, and they have made it through difficult times before.
“To the other producers, we are all in this together,” Furseth said. “We will get through it together, and we can’t be afraid to reach out for help if it’s needed.”
The reduction in demand has resulted in milk dumping around the state and nation.
According to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the Wisconsin Cheese Association, it is unclear how much has been dumped, as farmers are self reporting to the WDACTP. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence.
The owners of Darlington Ridge Farms in Darlington reported dumping 20,000 gallons of milk per day, according to a CNN report. Golden E. Dairy Farms in West Bend reported up to 30,000 gallons of milking dumping, according to a WTMJ-4 news story.
Furseth and other farmers report that some cooperatives have agreed to collectively absorb the cost for the milk that is dumped among its members.
But other farmers, such as Sandy Larson, who owns a dairy farm in Evansville, are getting hit harder.
She said she will receive no payment for the 20% reduction in milk her farm was asked to weather for the rest of April and all of May. The Larson farm has roughly 2,500 cows and sells milk to Grande Cheese Company, which makes cheese for pizza.
“It is hard. It is just a rollercoaster of emotions if you stop to think about it – then it hits you,” Larson said. “Every day, we still have to come to the farm, we still have to get our chores done, we still have to milk them and take care of them. It is at night when you can’t sleep that it hits you – it’s hard.”
Larson and Furseth said farmers are finding alternative ways to reduce production, such as adjusting the ratios of feed – in a way that would not harm the cow, but produce less milk.
Farmers also can feed their calves more milk and start drying cows early – a term that refers to the time before a calf is born where the mother is not milked.
The two last resorts for farmers, Larson said, are selling their dairy cows and dumping their milk.
Cheese plant is a cheese plant
While school and restaurant markets are down, there has been around a 40% uptick in grocery sales the last two weeks in March, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin CEO Chad Vincent said on the Midwest Farm Report.
Still, he said that does not make up for the reduction in the two largest markets.
And now that the market has shifted, some processing plants can’t switch operations on a moment’s notice. Facilities that used to turn out 50 pound bags of shredded mozzarella for restaurants are in the dark, Furseth said, while ones that make gallons of milk for grocery stores are weathering the storm.
He said plants that aren’t able to diversify their products can particularly struggle when facing a flooded market.
“A processing plant that’s set up to do fluid milk … It’s not like they can wake up in the morning like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make cheese today or we’re going to make ice cream,’” he said.
While there is a surplus of milk in Wisconsin, consumers report seeing limited rations of dairy products in grocery stores to prevent hoarding. In an April 2 interview with Pam Jahnke of the Midwest Farm Report, Vincent called on industry leaders for grocery stores to stop limiting the amount of dairy products customers buy.
Starting April 2, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the Cheese Makers Association called on the USDA to purchase the excess milk from farmers and redistribute it to food pantries, nutritional assistant programs and other sources.
Under the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection took a similar step the day before, stating USDA needs to secure the $104.8 billion impact agriculture has on Wisconsin’s economy.
“In a time when many people are already food-insecure, it’s more important than ever that we get Wisconsin’s nutritious commodities in the hands of consumers who need them the most,” Evers said in a news release. “I’m hopeful that our federal partners understand the urgency of the need here, and will take action accordingly.”
Two weeks later, the USDA announced its aid package. That is expected to make $16 billion in direct payments to farmers in May and include a mass government purchase of $3 billion in dairy, produce and meat products, Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said during an April 17 press briefing.
Another initiative that has started out of the calls for action is the Dairy Recovery Initiative.
A nonprofit out of Milwaukee, The Hunger Task Force, teamed up with the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to recover and distribute Wisconsin milk across the state.
The groups will purchase $1 million worth of milk from farmers and distribute it to food pantries, according to an April 15 news release.
Furseth and Alme said as solutions are being worked out they will continue to milk the cows and provide food for families. That’s something dairy farmers have been doing in Wisconsin for decades.
“I’d like the consumer to know that even though we are dumping milk or having to cut production, we are still striving to produce a high quality, nutrition packed product that they expect and deserve. If you see it on the shelf, buy it,” Furseth said.