WI dairy popular with consumers as farmers struggle to survive - Paycheck
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WI dairy popular with consumers as farmers struggle to survive

Experts tracking dairy consumption in Wisconsin are witnessing increased fluid milk and cheese sales in the retail industry. At the same time, farmers are being asked to cut their production.

   “Right now we're seeing that families are together and the consumption of fluid milk is incredible,” said Chad Vincent, C.E.O. of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “Beyond milk, we are seeing overall dairy numbers jump – frozen pizza, and cereal (milk’s best friend) were also up double digits. Consumers are turning to dairy for the nutrition, protein, and enjoyment.” 

   Steve Stettler, master cheese-maker at Decatur Dairy of Brodhead, Wisconsin, is experiencing steady cheese sales in his on-site retail store. He’s grateful for the consistency of his cheese customers during a time of year when sales are generally slower, and has even hired extra workers for curbside pickup.

   But one major area of Stettler’s business doesn’t exist right now – the sales from the food service industry. As restaurants and schools continue to be closed, dairy consumption in that sector of the industry has dropped to nearly nothing.

   “Anybody who has built their business around food service is struggling,” Stettler said.

   Decatur Dairy’s board of directors asked its milk patrons to begin cutting their production by 10 percent the week of April 13. While Stettler feels the need to do this is disheartening, he believes the relationship between farmers and other key players in the industry, like milk processors, is still strong.

   “We all need to work at this together because it isn’t easy for any of us,” he said. “Farmers are going to take a hit again, and prices are still so low.”

   Rock County dairy farmers Steve and Liz Case and their son, Craig, milk 140 cows and send their milk to Decatur Dairy. When they were asked to cut production by 10 percent – which is 1,200 pounds daily – they decided to save money on milk replacer by feeding about half of their discarded production to their calves.

   “We can take milk out of the tank and heat it up to 115 degrees and feed that to the calves,” said Steve Case, who serves on the board of directors at Decatur Dairy. “I knew this was coming. It was just a matter of time before we had to dump milk.”

   Despite taking advantage of this option, it’s the uncertainty in the industry that’s tough, he said. With no timeline in place, Case is concerned for other farmers who might not be able to survive yet another challenge.

   “You just can’t take these cows and reach inside their leg and turn a valve off,” he said. “If she’s giving 140 pounds, how are we supposed to shut that off?”

   The Case family is known in the area for being good dairy managers. One of their management decisions over the last few years has been to enroll in the Dairy Margin Protection program, a federally-funded program designed to protect dairy farmers when the difference between the milk price and the average feed cost, which is the margin, dips below a certain dollar amount selected by each farmer.

   “The only way to get paid in this program is by the recording of your milk weights through your dairy processor,” Case said. “So if we dump milk, those weights aren’t going to get recorded, so how will we get paid for what we lose? We’re not sure yet how this will turn out.”

   Green County dairy farmers Dan and Ashley Wegmueller milk 55 Brown Swiss cows in a grass-based system on Dan’s family’s fourth-generation farm just outside Monroe, Wisconsin. Dan has a slightly different perspective.

   “I am grateful that the weaknesses of this system have been exposed,” he said. “I think we need to push back, and I think we’ve been given a golden opportunity. I think we need to educate and reconnect with the very people we’re supposed to be serving in the first place – each other.”

   Wegmueller believes it’s important to point out those system weaknesses, like record-setting bankruptcies of small farms, farmer depression and suicide rates, and vertical integration. But he knows people don’t care enough to take action.

   People only care about these issues when they experience limits on food at grocery stores, have to pay more for their food or dig a deeper well to access clean water, he said. The agriculture industry has been headed this way for a long time.

   “No one cares until they see news reports and photos of produce sitting out to rot, milk getting dumped, pigs euthanized, chickens gassed and eggs smashed,” Wegmueller said. “I think we need to recognize that we are not a bunch of victims.”

Mary Hookham

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