Post-pandemic world likely short of milk
April 29, 2020
Many of us remember carrying that tray in the school cafeteria, the one that had the food and the little half-pint cardboard container of milk.
Plenty of adults use milk in their coffee, and some even like a cold creamy glass every once in a while.
COVID-19 is shaping up like bad news for those milk drinkers and dairy farmers countrywide, specifically in New Mexico. Among the establishments closed since March by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are schools and restaurants, two of the biggest customers for dairy farmers, leading to milk surpluses that are likely to eventually become shortages.
“When the schools and the restaurants were closed, that was about 50 percent of our business. And it was lost,” said Walter Bradley, government and environmental issues director for Dairy Farmers of America.
“People did buy more groceries, but that didn’t come close to offsetting the loss of the restaurants and schools (not buying milk).”
Without those two prime customers, there has been a milk surplus in New Mexico, the country’s ninth-largest dairy-producing state, forcing many dairy farmers to dump excess milk into irrigation ponds.
“You can’t spend the money to produce milk that you can’t sell,” Bradley said.
So the farmers are resorting to drying out their cows, which entails drying their udders — a 30-day process that involves no longer giving them the nutrient feed that helps them produce milk.
“There’s what we call collateral damage,” Bradley said. “Cows don’t have on-off switches. They produce milk all the time.”
After they’re dried out, the cows usually get shipped off to slaughterhouses, which forever eliminates those milk-producers from the process, but also leads to heavy losses for the dairy farmers. Bradley estimates that a milk cow is worth roughly $3,000. What the farmers get back from slaughterhouses is about $900 per cow, less than a third of what they were worth as milk cows.
And here’s where the eventual shortages come in — once milking cows are gone to the slaughterhouses, they’re gone, and when the state re-opens there won’t be some magic wand that makes more.
“It takes about two years to get a cow to produce milk,” Bradley said, “so we’re thinning out the herds to meet the low demand today. But when the markets open up, the schools open up, the restaurants open up, and they start ordering, we’re going to be short of milk. It takes two years from insemination to start producing milk.”
So milk lovers may eventually be in for a cold glass of nothing, while the dairy farmers have to hurry up and wait to be profitable again.
“The loss right now is tremendous,” Bradley said, “and some of our farmers may not make it through this. The longer this goes on and the more production they have to cut back, they still have debt that they have to pay just like any other business.
“Then you have to go through recovery time to build the herds back up, so that’s the reality.
“We will come through it. We’ll work out plans to come through it and make it happen. But it takes time.”