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Dairy Farming in the Continuing Shadow of Covid

“Healthy milk products in a safe and profitable marketplace.” That is the goal of every dairy producer. “Yes! There are a wide range of issues.  Recently solutions have had to solve a wide range of challenges and some fairly severe crisis situations.” Thankfully, the modern dairy industry has a long and positive history of finding ways to cope with virus outbreaks and the resulting disruptions.

When the COVID-19 virus was first identified fourteen months ago, there was a swift investigation to confirm that cattle themselves would not be spreaders. Very quickly the next question was, “Is Covid going to have immediate, short-term and long lasting effects on production of healthy dairy products?” As you read this, how close has the crisis of COVID 19 come to your dairy farm? Were you prepared 12 months ago? Are you more prepared today?


The Covid Pandemic is not the first force to drive changes in the world that dairy farmers do business in.  Here are six examples that previous generations faced, worked through and continued beyond. 

  1. Our grandparents did not see people with handheld computers. We didn’t expect our herds to be analysed by computer cameras. “What will our dairying grandchildren see?”
  2. Our grandparents didn’t imagine cows at robotic feeders. Our grandchildren may see robotic work crews. “Will future housing facilities take robotics even further?”
  3. Our grandparents did not see rotating milking parlours. Our grandchildren may develop drive through pick up of small loads of milk for targeted delivery. “How would these innovations affect your dairy future?”
  4. Our grandparents did not see large numbers of immigrant workers.Our grandchildren may draw from international teams of dairy farm workers. “Is finding labourers a hurdle or an opportunity?”
  5. Dairy farms have handled their own clean-up teams to sanitize housing, store rooms, small handheld equipment and large motorized vehicles. “Is your dairy team, prepared and trained to handle evolving virus situations?”
  6. Modern dairies have benefited from the dairy innovators who came before them. “Who will invent, produce and mentor for the next dairy generation?” 


It isn’t hard to find opinions about what should, would or could be done to make lives better.  News, television, radio and local gathering places, pile up what is patriotic, what is political and what is just plain confusing. Where do dairy decision makers get their information?  Located in Canada but with a large US readership, it is a daily challenge for THE BULLVINE to find balanced and confirmable facts. We often ask after news event that affects dairying or agriculture, “What just happened?”

In the overriding politics of division, we read diametrically opposing reports of who has been given money.  Has help reached your dairy?  How much research does it take until someone says, “Small farmers are getting a meagre share of Coronavirus relief.” And someone else declares, “Some farmers are getting too much money.”

It is tempting to claim the high ground in discussions involving the problems that have appeared in the 2020 to 2021 dairy industry.  The truth is that, at the same time, similar problems have arisen, not only in Canada and the US, but around the world.  Politics has become more polarizing and, like the Covid virus that has become a pandemic, no country or political party is immune to it.


If dairying in states, provinces, tribes and territories is seen like a herd … with different ages, stages and needs … it is easier to understand why one action cannot and should not be applied identically in every situation. Having said that, is the political assistance that is often touted in news headlines actually helping? Every day every news source has their own version of statistics.  What is real?  What is actual?  Do we really understand what the statistic includes or does not include?

Here are statistics that are researchable:

  • S.A. 76% of farmers are white; 17% are Latino; 3.5% are Black.
  • White dairy men earn $30,000 White dairy women $27,000 Black $ 27,000.

Here are statistics that vary so much that a definitive answer is just a number.

  • Where is the concentration of agriculture debt? Dairy producer debt?
  • What is the effect of changing land values on dairying? Changing land zoning?
  • By how much has the supply chain disruption, affected dairy industry profits?
  • In the long term, how much will the widening economic divide between rich and poor, affect the consuming of dairy products? How will that affect dairy profitability?


We started out with a celebration of the history of dairy creativity and adaptability. To be realistic, we must realize that people, facilities and cows didn’t achieve this progress due to some magical process.  Under ongoing stress, there has to be effective decision making, management plans and investment all wrapped up in a vision of where to find the opportunities and solutions.

The dairy landscape of 2020 and 2021 has so far seen monumental shifts. Climate change brought fires to the west coast, drought to some states, flooding in other areas and an unusual number of severe storms on the east coast and dramatic winter weather in places where prolonged snow had never been experienced before. Sometimes multiple events closely followed each other. This meant no water for drinking and many homes and barns experienced dangers to humans and animals because of lack of heat and the resulting frostbite, burst pipes and hypothermia. Can this be foreseen and prepared for?


Once again the problems don’t arrive in exactly the same way and so too the solutions must adapt to particular situations. Food and safety for people first.  Then finding ways to keep animals safe and well-fed despite disruptions. It would be wonderful if the overproduction in one area could provide for the lack in another. Disruption prevents this.  Slow moving requests for help.  Lagging ability to respond where it is most urgently needed. Even the natural ability of dairy generations to solve their own problems without asking for assistance is, in itself, part of the problem.

The human factor complicates the outlook because there are people on the farm, off the farm, at lending institutions and other suppliers that are making decisions based on their perspective on the impact of Covid 19. Who decides where your dairy’s growth point is now?  Nutritionist? Vet? Crop additive supplier?  Different opinions are healthy.  Different facts are destructive. Goals and action plans for your dairy need to be aligned.


Dairy farmers don’t run from hard questions. Finding answers is not simple and boils down to working either independently or through collaboration with those who also share long term goals for dairy sustainability. 

The answers driving dairy success stem from four basic questions:

  1. What is actually working?
  2. What is not moving forward?
  3. What is needed now?
  4. Is reaching consensus more important than taking individual corrective action?

These difficult big picture questions need answers:

  • Who is responsible for the problems of methane, milk prices or land use? Is cleaning up the climate more or less expensive than cleaning up the aftermath of climate destruction?
  • Who defines the costs of action? Who defines the costs of inaction? Who pays?
  • How much do you depend on a free trade oriented global market?                                 
  • How much do you depend on local markets and government subsidies?
  • Who is coping best with changing milk prices, international competition and global market conditions?


Ongoing healthy dairy farm management means not throwing out the scientific facts with the milkhouse wash water. Conditions change.  Responses can too. Even as you read this article, numbers are changing. Conditions are changing. Deadline dates, figures, dollars and legislation are all dynamic. We know we can’t hold back change but, at the same time, experience tells us to recognize that quickly enacted decisions can have long term effects.  Losing hard won gains in genetics, nutrition and management may take years to regain. We love the ringside and industry wide recognition of dairy leaders, but getting to that level is not a spectator sport. It means hard work, daily decisions and effective personal and dairy team decisions. However, simply managing what receives attention does not mean that your dairy will automatically be successful.


We are impressed and justifiably proud of those who have success in the show ring or on the national awards scene. But receiving awards and applause does not mean that there were no difficulties. Success is hard work and despite the look of ease, successful operations are built on the way hard decisions are made and how difficult challenges are met. Ironically, successful dairies also know what to do when things are going well. A good question that dynamic dairy managers can answer is, “What did you do with the money you made in good years?” They don’t stop with a shelf of trophies. They don’t stop with the last pedigree.  They don’t limit their goals. Dairy operations that do well are equally proficient in milk production, herd health and financial decision making. A fine example of this kind of continuing success is “ERBACRES SNAPPLE SHAKIRA The New International Superstar”.


Coping is what dairies do.  There is so much information overload, crisscross and misinformation that it can adversely affect your bottom line.  Each dairy manager must take responsibility for keeping up on subsidies, refunds, tax relief, and any COVID related financial support. With the disconnection between federal, state/provincial and local governments, some money could fall through the cracks.  That hurts a lot when it’s your money.

As margins have tightened, there has been a year over year decline in licensed dairy farms in the US. In Canada imported cheese volumes rose through the first half of 2020 due to consumer demand and producer organizations expanding quota levels and due to trade agreements. It is tempting to focus on the profit and loss statement and see that there is a profit for dairies in both countries.  But what is that money being used for?  Is money gradually declining in order to keep refinancing real estate costs or other debt?  When does the line of profit come face to face with nothing left? The bills, on and off the dairy, must always be paid. 


The current Pandemic is not the same as the Great Recession.  Dairy managers and their business situations are also not the same.  Previous generations met and surpassed their dairy challenges. Post Covid 19 is not just about human health but also about dairy competitiveness in a world where many layers of dairy production and dairy product consumption have been disrupted.  Geography, environment and politics are throwing new curves. Safety, health and consumer buying patterns are the signposts to follow. As we’ve learned from conversations with readers of The Bullvine, there are three steps needed if we are to build and strengthen the dairy industry we are so passionate about.  First: Remember our dairy legacy.  Second: Respond to current dairy challenges. Third: Take effective forward actions, with renewed dairy passion.




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