Yes, farmers are dumping milk. Here's why

I’ve seen over the last few days a lot of stories, comments, and mixed messages about farmers having to dump milk. I thought I’d clear a few things up with my perspective, direct from the farm.

We were included in the farmers asked to dump milk. We dumped a little over 4,000 litres of raw, unpasteurized milk. It’s what we produce over a 48-hour period. In case you are wondering, it’s not a fun thing to do. We are proud of the work we do and the nutrition we provide our cows and the food we produce. We don’t want to see that wasted.

Of course the question comes to why. First off, it has nothing to do with price. Milk in Canada has a fixed price coming from the farm, depending on what it’s used for. Whether it’s a big order or a small one, whether it’s today or the first of March, that price is set.

Second has to do with shelf life. Of course milk doesn’t last forever, and this is especially true of raw, unpasteurized milk. It’s required to be picked up from our farm within 72 hours, and then would need to be processed within a day or two. It can’t just sit and wait.

The third challenge is storage. I said it’s required to be picked up within 72 hours, but our farm and most others only have 48-hours-worth of milk storage on farm. That’s because milk is picked up every 48 hours. It would be an extra cost that would have to be accounted for.

The same goes for tanker trucks. There are enough milk trucks to pick up every farm every 48 hours. But there isn’t a fleet waiting for more. That would be an extra cost that no one has wanted to pay. So once it’s picked up, it has to be unloaded within the day.

That brings us to processors. And I feel for all of them right now. Before this started, demand was pretty constant. Tim Hortons would need a pretty steady amount of cream week to week. My Loblaws store would need a pretty steady amount of 2% milk. Processors would be able to adapt to small increases or decreases. But what’s happened over the last few weeks is nothing short of an absolute shock to the system. Plus, many are working with new rules of physical distancing for employees to make sure they stay healthy and operating.

Figures out of the U.S. (Canadian numbers should come soon) show increases through retail of 53% in milk, 84% in cheese, 127% for butter. All while food service demand collapsed. Keep in mind food service wants buckets of sour cream, not tubs, or 10 pound bags of shredded cheese, not packets. Tim Hortons uses a big bag of cream through a SureShot machine, while you want 500 ml at a time. Those processing lines can’t change overnight. It takes millions in new equipment and packaging to convert those. So you’ve got retail lines that can’t keep up while food service lines are completely backed up or shut down.

Having processing lines just sitting waiting for this occasion would be another cost that no one wanted to cover. It would have been passed on to consumers that typically don’t want to pay more than they have to.

Finally, you’ve got retail logistics. If it took two truck-loads a day to keep a grocery store stocked in February, all the extra demand means it now might take three or four. That’s more trucks. More drivers.

Unfortunately, all that combined meant something had to give. In our business of milk, some raw milk had nowhere to go. So a few hundred farms out of the 3,900 in Ontario were asked to dump two-days’ worth of production.

Learning that usually brings up the next question — what about food banks? It’s a great question. But again, we run into the challenge of it being raw and unpasteurized milk. A food bank can do nothing with a 40,000 L tanker at its back door. They aren’t processors. If anyone knows of an available line that can pasteurize, process, and package milk, I’d love to hear from them. But all those lines are tied up filling orders for grocers. And foodservice lines aren’t packaging in a usable form for food banks. Fortunately, as dairy farmers in Ontario we ARE donating close to 100,000 litres each month to food banks. Not because of the crisis, but because hundreds of farms have done it for many years. That milk was donated last month, the month before, and the month before that. It will continue.

We can do better, though. But the food chain can’t evolve overnight. Look up @ModernFarmer on Twitter. He’s got a great explanation of this, plus you’ll get to follow a pig farmer, too.

Struggles in the food chain are going to continue over the next several weeks. We’ll all do our best to cope, but know the struggles are real. Solutions aren’t simple. Or cheap. They’ll take a lot of work, but they will come. In the meantime, no matter where you are in the food chain, know how important your work is. And I hope your struggles are ones you can come out the other side from.

And of course if you need to talk, look up resources like Farm-Help lines, Do More Ag, or reach out to friends and family.

Good luck, everyone.

Stay safe. Stay apart.

And keep buying Canadian.

18 thoughts on “Yes, farmers are dumping milk. Here’s why

    1. Sandra, the article is disingenuous. Try and read Dr Bernard’s ‘The Cheese Trap’ if you can or, if short of time find his interview on YouTube – a real eye opener, you may never look at a milk product again.

  1. Why can’t the milk be processed into the large tub of sour cream or jumbo bag of cheese and that is provided to the food bank instead of dumping the milk??

  2. Sorry, but I must have missed something. Excess milk would be caused by over supply or low demand, and neither of these has been sited in the article. In fact increased demand was mentioned.

    1. No, there is significantly less demand for milk components — the hit to restaurants and food service is huge. So much cream and butter demand has disappeared overnight. Fluid milk demand is also down (after initial panic buying)

  3. Are you kidding me!!! we cant find milk any where and they are going to drive up prices. Here in Ottawa Lactose free milk is scarce and cost almost 10$ a 4 liter bag, and now they are stopping production, which means prices will go up and Availability will go down. (Slow clap)

  4. Milk used to sit for much longer, no need for the 72 hour window, old timers just laugh when they hear of such things. Settlers used to add a silver coin to a barrel of milk when leaving for the west, a trip which could take weeks but they could drink the milk for the duration. But first things first, milk consumption is bad for your health, period. When you’ve researched that fact then have Stats Can confirm it takes over 16,000 tax payers to subsidize each dairy farmer in this country. When you’re done with Stats Can then ask environmentalists if cows contribute more to green house gases then our cars. That’s just the begging of your search on milk and milk products like cheese etc.

  5. In other countries including the U.S.A. the general public can buy raw unpasteurized milk. But you cannot buy it in Canada, my understanding is that it’s against the law. I don’t understand this. Yes I suppose there is a very slight health risk in selling raw milk, but the health benefits far outweigh the risks…it’s a much healthier product than processed milk. Some farmers drink it themselves, and if the public was allowed to buy it we could go straight to the farmers and bypass industry. Again, they are doing it successfully in other countries. And from what I hear, generally our cattle are treated better than some other countries, so if anything our raw milk is likely safer than theirs. This needs to change.

  6. Government should push for a change in law to allow for UHT milk production (ultra-high temperature” process by which it’s treated, and sometimes called shelf-stable or aseptic milk). Most of the Europe carries this type of milk and it shouln’t be too much work to retool the processing to allow for this.

  7. Interesting short term manufacturing problems. I’m certain a very impractical thought on my part. Could the pork industry assist by feeding excess to their pigs? I remember this strategy being deployed 50 and more years ago.

  8. Great explanation as to the complications and consequences that result when unforeseen events happen to a normally well balanced distribution system. One obvious question that was not addressed is, regardless of the disappointment and heartache involved in dumping a product that has such value, are the producers being compensated for the milk that is being thrown away?

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