The news and social media have been filled with images of dairy farmers pouring milk down the drain. With some consumers not able to get the essential foods like dairy products that they need, this action is confusing—perhaps even enraging. Below, the different short-term problems facing distribution will be discussed.
Yes, some dairy farms need to dump milk right now. However, milk production is not in trouble because cows don’t suddenly stop producing milk. Dairy farmers must milk their cows at least twice a day and, on average, dairy cows produce between 5 and 8 gallons a day. And this is a good time of year for production! In the spring, milk production is higher than in the colder months. Cows are producing the milk to meet consumer demand, and dairy farmers are ready to provide it.
So why is milk being dumped?
The problem arises from several sudden changes in where the milk goes due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are four main avenues for milk and other dairy products: retail/grocery stores, restaurants, schools and exports.
Grocery stores saw a rise in demand as rumors of potential statewide or national quarantines began. Consumers rushed to the store to stock up on essentials, emptying shelves faster than stores could fill them. Stores had to better ensure people have access to items, even if it’s not as much as each shopper needs. In response to panic buying, stores had to quickly limit how much of a product consumers could buy. Limits were put on a range of goods, such as milk, eggs, meat, toilet paper and bread. The panic buying continued as pictures of empty shelves spread across social media, with no one knowing how long that scene would be normal. Now, consumers may not see empty shelves when they visit stores, but the limits are in place at many locations, which is bad news for those who need multiples of a product in order to feed their families.
While restaurants with drive-thru and delivery options see a rise in demand for these particular services, the overall demand has dropped with the closure of dine-in options. Schools have ended early. As countries lockdown and restrict products from other countries, exports have dropped.
Demand has dropped outside of grocery stores. Why can’t milk keep up?
The simple answer is that orders are low or can’t be fulfilled.
Processors may make certain dairy products. Processors may make dairy products for a certain avenue. Whatever the case, if the processor doesn’t already make what is in demand, they are going to be limited in what they produce in a given time. Instead of making bulk products for restaurants, cartons of milk for schools, or shelf-stable foods for export, they’re expected to adapt their equipment and supplies to produce dairy products consumers want. The process is slow.
And even if the processors can pasteurize and package enough milk to meet demand, grocery stores that continue to limit milk sales are not greatly increasing their orders.
Also keep in consideration that workers in multiple fields are needed, including farmhands and drivers. If these workers are staying home or working reduced hours, this also affects production.
So why don’t dairy farmers sell straight to consumers? Or even donate it?
Some do. There are dairy farms that collect their milk to create their own milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and more that they sell online or in a store near or at the farm. They also can face issues due to the rise of sudden demand.
For those who don’t, they have to follow the current supply chain. Milk is minimally processed, but in most states, it must go through pasteurization to be sold for human consumption.
What can be done?
Once pasteurized, milk can be shared in multiple ways. Restaurant chains are being encouraged to move more dairy products with meals. School feeding programs continue across the country for all children under 18 years old. Normally, about 7% of fluid milk moves through schools nationally. Programs that continue feeding students are helping with this loss of a shortened school year. Dairy farmers and processors are also examining how they can donate to food banks that are experiencing a staggering rise in demand due to pay cuts and job losses.
For stores that are limiting milk, politely ask why. The Southeast focuses on moving fluid milk and dairy farmers are having to dump milk. Can these limits be removed to help everyone? There might be a policy that this goes against, so don’t be critical of grocery stores if they can’t remove limits.
Dairy farmers are dumping milk now, but they and the rest of the food sector are working to supply consumers with the foods they need.