The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on ranchers and farmers, especially beef, hog and dairy producers. Because of the immediate shift from restaurant and school-based products to grocery shelf packaging, meatpacking and dairy plants needed to reconfigure – quickly.
Less product was needed. This left ranchers and dairy farmers in a lurch.
"Milk prices have been so low. We thought it was getting better, but now (during COVID-19) they bottomed out," said Melissa Drzymalla of Le-Vr Dairy in Newton. "This has been a big hit to the gut."
Drzymalla’s great, great grandfather, Arthur Molzen, started the farm. Drzymalla is a third generation dairy farmer. Her parents, DeDee and Byron Lehman, also run Le-Vr Dairy.
When COVID-19 hit, it clogged up the supply chain.
"The dairy farmers were alerted that it would be necessary to dispose of milk — 5-10% of the milk at this point," said Stephanie Eckroat, executive director of Kansas Dairy Commission and Kansas Dairy Association. "It was orchestrated by the co-ops."
Eckroat said this amount is smaller than what she had heard from some other states. Along with dairy bottlers switching gears, grocery chains placed limits on the amount of milk consumers could purchase.
"It created a perfect storm of confusion," Eckroat said. "The dairy co-ops have asked the dairy farmers to limit the amount of milk they produce."
To do this, farmers would need to take cows out of circulation or dispose of their milk.
"These sudden changes in demand are resulting in uncertainty, and are forcing some dairy manufacturers to cut or change production schedules or build inventories," said Kristen Coady, vice president, corporate communications, Dairy Farmers of America. "Due to the excess milk and plants already operating at capacity, there is more milk right now than space available in processing plants. This, in combination with the perishable nature of our product, has resulted in a need to dispose of raw milk on farms, as a last resort."
DFA has not disposed of milk since early April. The co-op is working to find alternative outlets for extra product, including food banks. According to DFA, Kansas and the overall disposal in the state has been pretty minimal compared to other areas. DFA represents more than 7,500 dairy farmers throughout the nation.
Drzymalla is able to provide her co-op with the same amount of milk, but is not guaranteed profit from the extra product she is supplying. She is also taking some of her cows off the line earlier.
"We’re taking 10% off (profits), which hurts incredibly," Drzymalla said. "We’re just about at our cost of production. You get up at three in the morning and you are watching it go down the drain."
Ron Grusenmeyer, manager of farmer relations for Midwest Dairy, said the industry is looking for ways to help both farmers and consumers. Midwest Dairy found many food pantries are unable to carry milk products because of a lack of refrigeration.
Midwest Dairy gave out refrigerators to eight food pantries in Kansas, which were near the dairy farmers they served. One was given to a pantry in Hesston. Le-Vr Dairy donated this pantry’s first refrigerator-full of products.
"I encourage consumers to purchase and consume as much dairy as they can," Grusenmeyer said. "There’s plenty of supply to go around."
As many schools were forced to serve lunch outside, Midwest Dairy also distributed 1,550 soft-sided milk crate cooler bags to help school districts keep milk and cold.
Gursenmeyer said half the U.S. population was going out to eat daily before the coronavirus hit. Because of this, more consumers were shopping at local markets and grocery stores – causing their products to sell more rapidly. As consumers once again become comfortable with dining out, demand will change.
"The cows don’t know what is going on," Grusenmeyer said. "They expect to be fed, milked and cared for."
Milk production in Kansas during March 2020 totaled 345 million pounds, up 7% from March 2019, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Eckroat said the average daily amount is about 120 semitrailers.
In March, the average number of milk cows was 170,000 head. This was 7,000 head more than March 2019. Milk production per cow averaged 2,030 pounds. In April, these percentages decreased due to the reshuffling of product destination infrastructure.
"The blessing in this pandemic is that people are starting to realize there’s a face behind their product," Drzymalla said. "We hope in all this people will realize that we are out here every single day putting food on someone’s table. We have a passion for what we do. Nobody would do this unless they love it."