About 7 o’clock Tuesday night, Golden E Dairy got the call that any dairy farmer would dread. They were being asked to dump 25,000 gallons of fresh milk a day because there was no place for it to go as the marketplace for dairy products has been gutted by the closure of restaurants, schools, hotels and food-service businesses.
An hour later, the family-run farm near West Bend opened the spigot and started flushing its milk into a wastewater lagoon — 220,000 pounds a day through next Monday.
It was surreal, said Ryan Elbe, whose parents, Chris and Tracey Elbe, started the farm in 1991 with about 80 cows and grew it into an operation that today milks 2,400.
“We thought this would never happen,” Elbe said. “Everybody’s rushing to the grocery store to get food, and we have food that’s literally being dumped down the drain.”
But the Wisconsin dairy industry has been dealt a harsh blow from the economy that’s been slammed by coronavirus shutdowns. About one-third of the state’s dairy products, mostly cheese, are sold in the food-service trade.
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Dairy farmers, whose product is highly perishable, are seeing processing plants close or curb production, forcing them to flush their milk down the drain if there’s no other buyer.
“I think that a lot of milk will all of a sudden be dumped. Everyone across the industry is feeling distressed now,” said Julie Sweney, spokeswoman for FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative in Madison.
“Over the last several hours I have heard this is unfolding. There is definitely a strain on markets now. The whole consumption rate for milk is so much different than it was before COVID-19,” Sweney said.
For now, Dairy Farmers of America, the cooperative the Elbe family belongs to, has agreed to pay them for their milk that’s being dumped. But, like most coops, DFA is in tough financial shape and can only afford to do that for so long.
“We need to figure this out now, not in the next couple of weeks,” Elbe said.
“I know many industries are experiencing hardship now. This is just the story of ours,” he added.
Normally, his family’s milk goes to a Kemp’s processing plant owned by Dairy Farmers of America. But that plant is full to the brim, as are many others across Wisconsin.
Some of the larger DFA members were asked to dump their milk this week because, as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, it could be monitored in their regulated wastewater lagoons.
“You can’t just dump milk in a field,” Elbe said.
There’s simply too much of it now, according to DFA based in Kansas City.
“This, in combination with the perishable nature of our product, has resulted in a need to dispose of raw milk on farms in some circumstances,” Kristen Coady, a DFA vice president, said in a statement provided to the Journal Sentinel.
“With the uncertainty of COVID-19 and evolving consumer buying habits, we are seeing demand for dairy products change. While we initially saw increased demand at grocery stores as consumers stocked up on many products, like dairy … the retail demand is starting to level off. For this reason, we anticipate that milk will be more readily available at grocery stores in the coming weeks,” Coady added.
Flushing milk down the drain is heart-wrenching, Elbe said, even if a farmer is being reimbursed for it by their cooperative.
The wasted product represents a massive amount of work on the farm that includes the planting and harvesting of crops and raising youngstock into milking cows.
“This is a lot of milk, planning and hard work going up in flames,” Elbe said.
Dairy veterinarian Kent Bindl, from Sheboygan, put it this way Wednesday:
“For me today, we have reached a new level of despair. As a veterinarian for the past 18 years, I have seen the resiliency and optimistic nature of my clients be tried over and over again. However, today is different. Many have been told there is no place to process today’s loads and milk is being pumped into their manure storage facilities. The pain these producers are feeling today is palpable.”
More farms are likely to experience milk dumping in the coming weeks. The recent dairy crisis that began in late 2014 underscored changes in agriculture that have been taking place for decades but sped up more than many expected.
More on the dairy crisis:Dairyland in Distress
In the last few years, thousands of Wisconsin dairy farmers lost money practically every day they milked cows as an oversupplied market kept prices depressed. Waves of small and midsize farms shut down because they didn’t benefit from economies of scale found on larger operations.
“The disposal of milk, which we hoped to avoid, has begun, and that is very troubling,” said Daniel Smith, president and CEO of Cooperative Network, a Wisconsin and Minnesota group that represents cooperatives in dozens of fields including agriculture, health care and utilities.
“The dairy industry is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is essential that every means of support be given to Wisconsin dairy farmers and cooperatives as quickly as possible. This support should include increased government purchasing and distribution of dairy products,” Smith said.