Buying milk during the pandemic

(Photo: Getty Images)

Got milk? Depends on who you ask.

At times, some stores seem to have very little milk. Dairy farmers, meanwhile, have plenty.

But milk straight from the cow needs to be processed into products consumers want—like butter, cheese, yogurt and milk in one-gallon jugs. Because of the coronavirus and the shutdowns, demand for milk and dairy products for schools and restaurants has dropped off.

So, milk processors have been trying to shift gears—from producing small containers of milk for schools and sizeable packages of cheese for restaurants, to packaging and bottling more products an individual shopper would buy.

Either way, dairy farmers have to milk their cows every day. Early in April, for the first time, two companies that buy milk told some of Ohio’s dairy farmers to dump the milk they had produced on their farms. Across the United States, other dairy farmers were dumping as well.

Dianne Shoemaker, an associate professor at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, Environmental Sciences who specializes in dairy production economics, weighed in on the situation.

1. Why are dairy farmers dumping milk when some stores have little to none?

The wholesale demand for milk plummeted when schools and restaurants closed. But cows still have to be milked two to three times daily. Earlier this month, some processing plants wouldn’t have been able to pasteurize, bottle, and process all of the milk scheduled to be coming to their plants because much of the demand from restaurants and other institutions was gone.

Although stores and restaurants can refrigerate milk products for a while, dairy farmers and milk-processing plants have limited space to do so. As a result, several U.S. dairy companies told the dairy farmers they buy from to dump their milk, so the farmers did. At the same time, milk was in low supply in some stores, in part because some shoppers were buying a lot more milk than usual because of stay-at-home orders.

2. When did the milk dumping occur?

The first dumping in Ohio began the weekend of April 4. There have been no reports of dumping since April 20. About 64 Ohio farmers dumped milk—anywhere from one to four of their typical shipments.

3. Where did farmers dump their milk?

After milking their cows, some dairy farmers sent the milk directly to manure storage facilities to be spread on their fields, a fertilizer of sorts. Others pumped milk directly into tanks to be directly applied to their fields. It’s not what the farmers wanted to do, for sure. But they had little choice.

4. Why couldn’t that milk be given away to those in need?

Some milk produced in northern Ohio went to a food bank in Lorain County. The donated milk had already been bottled. It had been on the shelves of convenience stores, which weren’t able to sell it because of fewer people stopping for gas and buying dairy products. Giving away the milk that was dumped at the farm would not have been possible unless a milk processor had been able to pasteurize and bottle it without being compensated.  

5. Is there a limited supply of milk?

No, not at all. It’s really important for people to understand there is no shortage of milk or dairy products. Though some stores have tried to prevent hoarding by limiting the amount of milk people can buy, milk and dairy products are in plentiful supply.

6. The dairy industry has been facing tough economic times. How would you describe the situation?

The price that dairy farmers earn for their milk has plummeted, particularly in the past five years. Dairy farms have been shutting down their operations in Ohio and across the country. Since 2015, Ohio has lost more than 1,000 dairy farms and 16,000 dairy cows. With the expected drop in prices farmers are earning for their milk, I don’t expect that’s going to slow down.

CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: