How Coronavirus Impacts Dairy Farmers Across the USA

How is this pandemic is impacting our dairy farmers? This is what is happening: Two months ago, who would have thought I would be writing about a worldwide pandemic, and “shelter in place” and “stay at home” orders, which would have people everywhere rushing to the store to stock up on toilet paper?

Stocking up on household essentials, extended beyond the paper, and cleaning products’ aisles. The grocery store shelves have also been out of stock on meat, canned goods, liquor, and many dairy products, specifically milk and yogurt. 

I live in the Midwest, and the buying behavior I witnessed at the grocery store, was very much like the stocking up which occurs when a snowstorm has been forecasted which will keep us home for days. When we know we will be “stranded” at home, without easy access to the outside world, we want our comfort foods, and we want stocked cabinets and refrigerators.

Milk always finds its place on that list of necessary items when we see ourselves spending an extended amount of time at home with little opportunity to easily restock. 

I wondered how this pandemic might be impacting our dairy farmers. I initially thought, based on the dairy out-of-stocks I witnessed at grocery stores, dairy farmers must be experiencing the best of times with increased consumption of milk. 

I reached out to several dairy farmers I know from my time working for the USDA dairy farmer checkoff program and asked them to share how the pandemic is affecting life on the farm. It quickly became clear to me I had not thought through the impact this was having on the bigger dairy farming picture.

The dairy industry has had an increase in dairy product exports over the last several years, with exports accounting for approximately 14% of production, or in other words, about one day of production per week. 

The pandemic has brought exports to a near standstill for the time being. In addition, with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and schools closed in over 30 states, (at the time this column was written), foodservice consumption of dairy products has dropped dramatically. 

It’s true, dairy sales at retail are up approximately 40% versus a year ago, but the increase cannot make up for what has been lost in these other channels. 

While there seem to be some bright spots in the consumption of dairy products at home, the impact of the decrease in exports and food service, has resulted in an oversupply of milk. For dairy farmers, this means, their farm gate milk price has decreased by as much as 20%. Co-ops are asking their farmers to reduce their milk production to help maintain pricing.

Milking cows is not like running a manufacturing line. A farmer can’t just slow down a cow’s milk production. The only way a farmer can reduce milk production is to cull some of their herd. And, at the moment, the cattle market is very depressed. Culling a herd also takes an emotional toll on a farmer. 

Any dairy farmer will tell you their “girls” are a part of their family. Culling a herd is never an easy decision.  However, sometimes financially, a farmer’s hand is forced. How frustrating it must be for farmers to see this increase in dairy consumption, and to watch their farm gate prices drop so significantly.

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And what happens if the coronavirus comes to the farm? Most importantly, consumers can be assured, farmers are producing safe, nutritious milk every day and providing the utmost comfort and care to their animals.  

They are developing contingency plans if an employee, a family member, a trucker, or anyone in the supply chain, gets sick with the virus. There is little “wiggle-room” to account for the virus coming on their farm.

Finding temporary trained labor is nearly impossible; family members will have to take on the additional responsibility. Of course, farmers have contingency plans for short term emergencies that might occur, but the self-isolation and quarantining of anyone exposed to someone who tests positive could wipe out a farm’s entire workforce. Sadly, there will be farms which will not survive through this most recent crisis.

We are living through an unprecedented time. The increase in dairy consumption we are experiencing is encouraging. Now is the time for the dairy industry to analyze consumer behavior to understand what draws consumers to dairy at a time of such uncertainty. 

What is it about dairy which makes consumers stock up in times of crisis? How can the dairy industry capture what drives that behavior and develop products consumers will want in the future? This needs to be done to save the future of the dairy industry, dairy farming and dairy farmers. 

Thank you to all my dairy farming friends who provided their insights to this column.