Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

Dairy farmers strained by pandemic

Glut of milk results from school, restaurant closings

By Leslie Gartrell
The closing of schools and restaurants due to COVID-19 has created uncertainty in an already volatile dairy market, causing dairy farmers throughout the nation including those locally, to prepare for the worst.
Demand for dairy products has fluctuated in an unprecedented fashion. Dairy Farmers of America initially saw increased demand at grocery stores as consumers stocked up on products such as milk in anticipation of stay-at-home orders, Kristen Coady, DFA vice president of corporate communications, said in a statement.
However, retail demand soon dropped, quickly followed by foodservice sales as restaurants and schools across the U.S. closed, Coady said. DFA now sees an overall surplus of milk. Some dairy farmers who are a part of DFA have had to dispose of their raw milk as processing plants are operating at capacity.
Member farmers in Mercer County have yet to dispose of or dump milk, DFA spokesperson Kim O'Brien said.
John Wuebker, a St. Henry dairy farmer and DFA councilman for the Mideast region, said it's still a worrisome time.
Dairy cows are milked two or three times a day, making it a daily product that can spoil quickly if a farmer can't get it out of their tanks and onto milk trucks, Wuebker said. Milk can be kept in tanks for 36-48 hours before it must be put onto a milk truck. It then has to be taken to a processing plant within eight to 24 hours.
While Wuebker hasn't had to dump any milk or limit production, he noted if a DFA processor can't accept any more milk, DFA dairy farmers could be in a tight spot.
With 130 head of cattle on his farm, Wuebker on Friday said he was waiting to hear more about DFA's plans. By Monday, Wuebker said DFA had begun to deduct pay from farmers' twice-monthly dairy checks to deal with COVID-19's effects. For an undetermined amount of time, DFA will deduct $2.50 for every 100 pounds of milk for COVID-19, according to Wuebker. For him, that meant a $2,500 deduction from his most recent check.
While he was uncertain exactly how the money would be spent, Wuebker said DFA has donated milk to food banks the last few weeks.
Mercer County Ag Solutions Coordinator Theresa Dirksen, who along with her husband has a 200-head dairy farm, said she's felt the effects of COVID-19 on their operation. While they haven't had to furlough or lay off any workers or dump milk, Dirksen said she anticipates 2020 will be difficult.
"Prices have dropped dramatically, and planting season will also be a challenge," she said. "This will have a long-term impact."
Many producers depend on exports to stay in business, Dirksen said. However, with current and future dairy prices looking grim, producers shouldn't expect a profit. To get back on their feet, she believes moving product across borders and getting back to exporting would be good for producers.
Allison Ryan, a spokesperson for MVP Dairy in Celina, said the 4,500-head dairy operation has been fortunate enough to operate as normal.
"Cows don't stop producing milk, so in those terms it's business as usual."
Ryan said the dairy, which supplies milk to The Dannon Co. yogurt plant in Minster, has not been asked to limit production or dispose of any milk.
Wuebker believes dairy farmers could see a 30%-40% reduction in income this year due to the ongoing pandemic atop pre-existing difficulties.
Low milk prices and the steady decline of small, family-owned dairy farms has already fueled uncertainty for many farmers. Wuebker said he can offset some of his costs by growing his own corn and wheat for feed but said getting past the pandemic will prove to be challenging.
"All you're trying to do is stay above water," he said.
Steve Homan, a dairy farmer with 220 cows, said farming is a challenge. Staying in business is an ongoing battle, and he believes April, May and June could be the worst of the worst producers have seen.
Yet Homan, like many other producers in the area, believes being a farmer is a profession of heart, passion and faith.
"Almost everyone and most businesses support agriculture in this area one way or another," Homan said. "It's our future."
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