Nine gallons. Yep, you read that correct – nine. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. My family of four will go through nine gallons of milk a week. It is the determining factor of when we go to the grocery store. “The milk gauge is on E” is the phrase we use. So it’s off to the market. During this time of social distancing this weekly chore is completed with military precision. Face mask? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. List? Check. One credit card and one store loyalty card? Double check. I push my cart up and down the one directional aisles not stopping to visit, just getting the job done. Then I get to the dairy section. If it is fully stocked, I’ll grab what we need for the week. If not, I’ll just grab four or five gallons and know I’ll have to make a “quick milk run” sometime in the next few days. So when I discovered farmers were having to dump milk, I had to find out why.
You might wonder why we go to the store for milk. After all, we raise cows on our farm. Why not milk our own cows? Well, we raise beef cattle. Yes, they are cows and yes, they do make milk for their calves, but not an abundance of milk like dairy cows produce. Since we do not have a dairy we do not have the necessary equipment needed to collect the milk. And we have no way to process our cow’s milk.
Why does cow’s milk need to be processed?
The milk we purchase at the store has gone through a process called pasteurization. This process heats the milk to kill the bacteria. Raw milk, or unpasteurized milk, can contain dangerous microorganisms. Not something that you would want to serve to your family.
In addition to being pasteurized, milk is homogenized, passed through screens with small holes, breaking the milk fat down into smaller particles. This creates a more uniform liquid and is much nicer to drink. You can drink non-homogenized milk by skimming the cream layers off the top, or by shaking it vigorously to evenly distribute the cream.
There are several steps involved to get milk from the farm to the grocery store. I prefer milk from the grocery. The amount of time it would take me to hand milk over a gallon a day, heat it to the proper temperature, skim and/or shake the milk, would not allow me time to complete my job as an agriculture classroom coordinator. This is the reason why we need dairy farmers. Every one of us is allowed the privilege of working a job we want because we have entrusted a farmer with the job of feeding our families.
Part of my job involves teaching students about where milk comes from. In the lesson All About Milk! (and milk alternatives) students discover the different varieties of milks and milk alternatives available. We read about dairy farmers that raise cows and milk them 2-3 times a day. We discuss how milk is consumed or processed into ice cream, butter, yogurt, and other dairy products. Then the students learn milk is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals – especially calcium and is rich in potassium and vitamin B12. We talk about how Vitamin D is also added to milk to help with the absorption of calcium. Next, we taste test different samples, chart which types we like best, and read the book The Milk Makers by Gail Gibbons.
Why is milk being dumped?
Due to COVID-19 virus, schools and restaurants were asked to close operations to help “flatten the curve” so our healthcare system wasn’t overwhelmed. This caused our dairy needs to shift.
Keiko Tanaka, a professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Kentucky, authored an article that discusses the challenges the milk industry is currently undergoing. In the article, Why Farmers Dump Food, she underscored that of the two main supply-chains in the U.S. food industry – one for household consumption and the other for commercial use – more than half the spending comes from the large-scale commercial side, which has been practically decimated.
And making an immediate shift for the sudden demand change, she noted, is far from simple. Milk processors, for example, “do not have the equipment to package [excess milk] into smaller containers for grocery stores and retail use” when there has been already a glut of cheese and other dairy products with longer shelf lives. Like vegetable and fruit farmers, dairy farmers have little choice but to dump excess milk,” Keiko and her team of researchers stated.
So what do you do when you have thousands of gallons of milk and the processing plants you used to deliver to are not accepting milk? Farmers are industrious and some are turning lemons into lemonade. More specifically, milk into fertilizer.
Where and how to use it?
Farmers grow crops that require nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. And milk contains all three. And, these three nutrients are readily available, unlike manure which contains undigested food that will need to break down before it can fertilize the soil. One thousand gallons of mike can contain 44 pounds of nitrogen, 18 pounds of phosphorous, and 17 pounds of potassium. By using the correct rates for their crop, farmers are recycling surplus milk.
There are some downsides to this alternative fertilizer. Milk has a very high biochemical oxygen demand. That means it will consume oxygen from waterways. Farmers need to be sure they are not applying it where it could run off and damage ponds or streams and potentially kill aquatic life. Surface application is an option, but if you’ve ever left the milk out too long you know it can start to smell bad. Milk degrades quickly, so one way to avoid the rotten smell is by injecting the milk directly into the field. While using milk this way is not ideal, it is a way for some farmers to recoup financial losses that occurred by having to dump gallons and gallons of milk.
Next time you pour your milk on your cereal, or dunk your chocolate chip cookie into a tall, icy cold glass of milk, I hope you can appreciate what went into providing that milk for your use. And maybe think of the farmers who had to try and do the best they could with it, using it to produce another crop. This is what farmers do. They work the hardest they can each year, raising their crops and caring for their livestock, and are always looking ahead to what they can do next year.