Dairy industry navigates uncharted territory amid COVID-19 pandemic

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, March 20, 2020 (updated March 24)

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — The ‘new normal’ brought on by the novel Coronavirus / COVID-19 global pandemic evolves rapidly as the U.S. is partway through the 15-day “flatten the curve” effort deemed critical by health officials. Federal, state and local governments worked together to launch the 15-day mitigation strategy early last week to blunt the trajectory of viral transmission so that it does not overwhelm medical and caregiving infrastructure when the virus is expected to reach its peak in 45 days.

The effort led to closures and cancellations of non-essential activities, with some large cities and highly affected states moving to “shelter in place” strategies.

National state of emergency

A national state of emergency was declared March 13. Alongside the more restrictive guidelines, new drive-through testing sites became available in all 50 states, and the Trump Administration cleared the way for certain anti-viral therapies used for other illnesses to move forward through FDA after trials showed positive results.

A 2 trillion-dollar response and aid package is also moving through Congress, and by March 18, President Donald Trump had invoked war powers to utilize military medical resources and ramp up private sector production of items needed to combat the virus.

A key difference from Influenza, say scientists, is COVID-19’s much more rapid rate of transmission and the current lack of management tools like vaccines and anti-viral therapies, making its burden to medical infrastructure a key concern.

Meanwhile, hospitals and health systems adopt strict visitation rules, take stock of bed and equipment capacity, and work through triage plans.

Markets and trade

Financial markets had steep losses again this week in response to the economy slowing to a virus-induced crawl. Travel restrictions and lack of availability of shipping containers are reported as just some of the disruptions to U.S. trade, including dairy. But remember, these disruptions are based on a viral epidemic that current steps are aimed at curtailing, so the longer-term impacts on human and economic health are hard to predict.

On March 18, President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau announced the closing of the U.S-Canadian border to non-essential travel. Both leaders assured that trade crossings, especially food, fuel and medicines, will not be affected.

The dairy futures markets suggest that the brunt of the impact on product prices and farm-level milk prices will be felt after May, but this depends largely on what happens over the next two months.

Milk and dairy in demand

Meanwhile, gallon and half-gallon sales of Whole Milk and 2% — as well as cheese and butter and other dairy products — are experiencing surging demand at the retail level, more than overcoming reductions in sales to schools and restaurants to the point of retail milk demand overtaking inventories with retail orders heading into “new territory.”

Pictures of empty dairy case shelves populate social media posts, and USDA Dairy Market News reports Class I milk demand ranging mostly from “strong” and “surging” to “extraordinary” and “haywire.” Given the reported butter surplus in cold storage, the current surge in fluid milk demand means less milk for manufacturing to add to inventories as the spring flush builds.

Milk and dairy products are a centerpiece of “comfort food” and in-home meals. In fact, as families settle into a period of greater isolation, more families are sitting down to eat together. Children are relaxing in the absence of extra-curricular activity schedules, and we may just find milk coming back to tables.

Schools, supermarkets, and restaurants adjust 

State governors have closed schools for at least two consecutive weeks, and now restaurants in many states are closed, except for takeout meals.

As the overall economy grinds to a virus-induced stop, uncertainty prevails even as essential services gear up for what may lie ahead. Amazon, for example, seeks 100,000 additional workers while limiting their warehousing and shipping to be focused on medicines and high-demand essential items.

Supermarkets are working to restock essentials, and there is a universally-reported surge in demand for milk and dairy foods that started March 13 and has accelerated nationwide since then. Stores are modifying operations, and relaxed rules for USDA meal reimbursement allow schools to provide grab and go meals to more families as children are home, and many adults find themselves suddenly out of work.

Supply chain planning and liquidity

Anticipating demand surges to be followed by periods of pull-back, milk plants and cooperatives are monitoring and planning for rapidly changing milk dispatch conditions. Many are looking ahead to make milk and dairy products available to food banks, as they are able, and especially if school half-pints are in inventory and as the product mix in demand is dramatically changing from foodservice to in-home use.

Concerns about liquidity have prompted The Fed to reduce the target interest to zero to 0.25%, and at the agricultural level, Farm Credit and other lenders sent communications Tuesday about working with customers impacted by COVID-19 as the full effects are not yet known in terms of Ag marketing and supply chain challenges.

Dairy market forecasts

Some analysts are going public with forecasts that dairy markets will suffer an average decline over the next 12 months that could be anywhere from 3 to 8% or 20 to 25% below the industry’s pre-COVID-19 milk price forecasts. Some have gone so far as to say milk prices paid to farmers could fall to 2008-09 levels as global and U.S. recession concerns emerge.

However, the underlying fundamentals of the U.S. economy are strong and will prevail unless both the fear and reality of the virus have a deep and long-lasting impact – something that cannot be forecast at this juncture.

Global Dairy Trade (GDT)’s price index is down 8% since COVID-19 fears became prevalent when the situation in China became known and Europe’s cases emerged. And yet, trading volumes have not declined in the biweekly GDT auction. This suggests global dairy demand is holding up.

A big supply-and-demand swing is always China, and there is a bright spot on that score.

Dairy is essential

Dairy is essential to a healthy diet, especially in times like these, and Milk’s immune-building properties are being recognized. For example, in China, where the virus is reported to have peaked and may be leveling off, Chinese dairy associations worked with the Chinese government to issue guidelines to “increase dairy consumption to build immune resistance,” saying “fight COVID-19 with dairy.”

A report this week in Food Navigator details these new dairy consumption guidelines in China as well as specific elements in milk that help boost the immune system. The formal stated: “Milk and other dairy products are an excellent source of high-quality protein and can also provide a source of Vitamin B2, Vitamin A, calcium and other nutrients essential for the human body. So a higher intake of these products for those low in protein, especially when higher immune resistance is required to fight the novel coronavirus, will be very beneficial.”

Dairy industry navigates ‘new normal’

Meanwhile in the U.S., four dairy processors and three milk cooperatives reported in email responses to Farmshine this week that even though all schools, some daycares and many restaurants are closed or curtailed, sales of fluid milk are surging to more than compensate.

“Quick changes in demand require a different product mix (whole gallons instead of 1% chocolate half-pints, for example). From a production standpoint, we have been reinventing the wheel every day for almost a week,” writes Carissa Itle Westrick of Valewood Farms Dairy, Loretto, Pa.

Another western Pennsylvania milk bottler indicated there are no sure answers to any questions just now, but that retail demand is higher, and the hope is that the school grab and go meals in most communities will be able to consume half-pint inventories.

In short, everyone is figuring out their “new normal”, and the industry is shifting its product mix from foodservice and institutional-style demand to in-home use demand.

In the Southeast, where fluid milk sales have been “lackluster” over the past several months, the situation changed dramatically since Friday, March 13.

“Up until last Friday, we had not encountered any changes in overall routing of milk to our regular fluid customers,” notes SMI’s CEO Jim Sleper.  “Then beginning Friday and ever since, it seems like all of our customers have added on additional milk to keep up with the surging demand resulting from customers stocking up, and we are seeing these extra loads far exceed the number of loads lost from schools being out.”

This observation is national in scope as confirmed by numerous industry sources, including Dean Foods, nationally, and other processors in the Northeast.

The concern in the balance is how long will this continue as home-bound refrigerators become full but also have the people at home to consume it?

Supply chain management?

Concern was expressed by some sources as to how the demand pattern will unfold if schools remain closed beyond two weeks right into the spring flush, especially if plants are short on labor or unable to remain open for a time.

According to a notice shared with Farmshine this week, Land O’Lakes informed its eastern members that beginning March 23, its base program will be strictly enforced, assessing members $10/cwt for their production over their individual base allocation, and asking members to “voluntarily” reduce their milk production as well as to prepare to dump milk.

The accompanying letter from Land O’Lakes indicated “business as usual” otherwise, for the moment, but that the cooperative is “preparing for a potential reduction in employee availability at plants across the country,” citing the possibility of having to dump milk. The letter also indicated that daily recorded messages would be sent to members in each milk shed about each milk shed’s respective situation.

All industry sources interviewed expressed heightened levels of emergency preparedness to bring some stability. As SMI’s Sleper put it, “We are treating this uncharted territory similar to our regular Hurricane Preparedness planning.”

Like the daily governmental briefings, milk processors and cooperatives are doing daily, even multiple times a day, conference calls among staff and board to navigate.

Transportation, labor and pricing

In a paper released this week by Dr. Andrew Novakovic of Cornell, the key points of vulnerability for the dairy industry are transportation and labor.

“Transportation disruptions could quickly scale to an industry problem,” he writes.

He also noted that the health of the labor force in milk plants affects the availability of milk more quickly than that of an individual farm.

American Farm Bureau also expressed to USDA that labor, supply chain issues and possible price manipulation top the list of immediate issues farmers are raising.

Optimism and commitment as food providers

In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, AFBF president Zippy Duvall pledged that, “America’s farmers and ranchers will be with you every step of the way, doing all that we can to help you win this fight and to ensure the health, safety and prosperity of all America.”

Sleper also expressed positivity. “Uncertainty seems to breed pessimism especially with the stock market and dairy commodity pricing,” he wrote in an email. “We will endure this like we have other situations.  For SMI, we encountered extremely low milk prices over the past four-plus years, a shortage of available labor, two major bankruptcies, and hurricanes. I’m amazed how resilient (our farmers) have become.”

Novakovic cites a few positives to think about: “Overall, I am optimistic that the food industry, beginning with farmers, will rise to this challenge,” he writes. “Given the longstanding concern and emphasis around animal health and food safety, I think agriculture and food businesses have a leg up in doing what is needed now.”

In fact, FDA released information this week stating that COVID-19 is NOT a foodborne pathogen, confirming that there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with any transmission of COVID-19.

“We are lucky in the dairy industry that the sanitation and food safety practices we have in place every day protect us from a variety of outside threats. We have expanded these plans, with an eye toward the unknown,” writes Itle-Westrick in an email. “But as a small business, the possibility of one employee becoming ill is something that would have a big impact on our production and distribution capability, so we are protecting against that.”

Even though schools are closed, their needs continue at a smaller, though increasing, scale. Numerous mainstream media outlets are picking up stories showing how schools are providing these grab and go meals (without congregating) in communities across America.

Krista Byler head chef of Union City Schools in Erie County, Pennsylvania says inventories allowed them to feed participating students for one week, and that they’ll need items like bread, rolls and milk for next week.

“We had sufficient milk on hand to handle breakfast and lunch for one week of service, and will be placing a milk order on Friday for the week of March 23rd,” said Byler in a Farmshine interview.

“I think every foodservice employee in this district is a mom, a grandma. We definitely have a heart for the children here, and we just want to make sure they have the food they need.”

Resources for dairy and agriculture

While there are likely many resource bulletins being put together for farmers and dairy producers,  two good ones include Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence at https://www.centerfordairyexcellence.org/covid-19-farm-resources/ and Indiana’s Purdue University at https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/a-guide-for-local-producers-to-navigate-the-covid-19-outbreak.html

Gratitude

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Instead of pessimism, a can-do spirit prevails as farm-to-table sectors navigate these unprecedented challenges, including restaurants that are on the front lines as vulnerable small businesses taking a huge hit but in many cases providing takeout meals, even at discounted prices, with an eye on the situation.

As dairy farmers continue their important work each day, we thank you — and all involved in the food supply chain — for your essential contributions

May God bless the medical professionals, caregivers, first-responders… and the farmers who feed us. Stay safe, have faith, and be well as we all pull together to stay apart and curb transmission to starve the enemy COVID-19.

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