Jeremy Beebe is facing his toughest challenge in 20 years as a dairy farmer. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has sent dairy markets on a roller coaster of uncertainty. Without government assistance, he said he could not have paid his eight employees at Double B Dairy in Whittemore, Michigan during the crisis.
“We were fortunate enough to receive money through the (Payroll Protection Program), so that’s been nice that we can take care of our employees,” said Beebe, whose farm includes 230 cows and is a five-time winner of the National Milk Quality Awards.
His decades-long relationship with Michigan State University (MSU) has helped ease some of the hardships he faces, especially MSU Extension educators like Phil Durst, who have provided comfort and advice.
“Through the 25 years Phil has been at MSU, he and I have become very good friends,” said Beebe, who graduated from MSU’s Institute of Agricultural Technology. “Phil is a terrifically well-rounded individual, and if he doesn’t know something, he knows where to go to find it. He covers so much ground across the state, and he still somehow makes himself available.”
COVID-19 presents a variety of issues to an already challenged industry. MSU C.E. Meadows Endowed Chair in Dairy Management and Nutrition, Barry Bradford said the largest hits are likely from the lack of food service demand, especially with the closing of schools and universities, and a decline in exports.
“Food service for cheese and other dairy products generally account for half of domestic production, and plants that were producing for a food-service scale had to find ways to start making products for single-family purchase. That’s been a big headache,” said Bradford, who came to MSU from Kansas State University in January. “We don’t know for sure to what extent exports have dropped, but there has been a big drop, which accounts for about 15 percent of production in the U.S.”
Most of the milk Beebe produces goes into making mozzarella cheese. By the beginning of June, prices continued to fluctuate.
“At this point, cheddar cheese prices are approaching a historic high, largely due to a huge purchase by the federal government,” he said. “For various reasons (including responses by producers and summer heat stress) almost all milk dumping that was occurring a month ago is now done. Prices, at least for June, are reasonable again.”
In addition to handling the constantly changing, tangible impacts of COVID-19, MSU Extension educators are also focused on assisting farmers on a personal level. Durst has reached out to more than 70 dairy farmers from some farms which have been around for as long as 100 years and might have to cease operation.
“People are afraid of what the future holds,” he said. “It’s been hard because we all want to go and speak face-to-face with people, and to be able to further assess how they’re doing. Mental health is a big issue. It’s important to be able to have the science to share, but maybe the most important thing right now is just talking about how farmers are handling all this stress. I think it’s important that we balance providing the resources and also connect people to people, and try to empathize with them, to listen to them, and to challenge them.”
Bradford said his main goal during the crisis is opening as many lines of communication as possible. He created a webinar series titled “Sharpen Your Dairy Skills while We Flatten the Curve,” in which a variety of experts present information on specific dairy topics, while also providing an outlet for producers to reach out with questions and concerns. Topics have included dealing with PPP and dairy revenue protection strategies.
“We just wanted to let them know we are available, and we are trying to anticipate the sort of unprecedented questions they are dealing with,” Bradford said.
MSU has been partnering with the Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA) since the commodity organization was formed in 1916 on the grounds of what was then Michigan Agricultural College. Sheila Burkhardt, MMPA senior director of member and government relations, said her organization is sharing more MSU resources than its ever had since the COVID-19 outbreak.
“MSU’s transition to virtual training and programming has enabled producers to readily connect to information that they have relied on from MSU,” she said. “We have shared with members the opportunity to connect with the MSU Dairy team members in their virtual Dairy Team Coffee Breaks held on a regular basis.”
Paola Bacigalupo-Sanguesa, who was born and raised in Chile, is as an MSU Extension dairy educator for southern Michigan. Specializing in dairy animal health and employee education, she has developed a series of COVID-19 videos in Spanish that dairy producers and managers can share with their employees, many of whom speak Spanish as their first language. These videos are available on the MSU Extension Dairy Team YouTube channel.
“As English speakers, we are bombarded with information about what COVID-19 is and what we can do to prevent it,” Bacigalupo-Sanguesa said. “But for Spanish speaking employees, we can’t assume they’re getting that information. My last day on a farm, I had one man come up to me and ask, ‘I have this and this symptom, do you think I have it?’ Some of them are worried that if they get sick and miss work they might lose their jobs.”
Durst and Bacigalupo-Sanguesa both said they empathize with the farmers whom they have not been able to work with face-to-face due to the pandemic.
“I struggle seeing farmers struggle, because they’re my friends,” said Durst. “When they hurt, I hurt. The thing that I’m concerned about the most with this pandemic is the loss of community. But maybe what it does is actually brings us together.”
Fortunately, financial assistance is on its way. According to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), small- to medium-size dairy farms will receive $6.20 per 100-pounds of milk produced in the first quarter of 2020. Bradford said that should be enough to backfill lost revenue from low prices in the midst of the pandemic. He added the industry must remain focused on the future and attempt to anticipate issues Michigan milk producers will face once aid ends.
History of helping
MSU has supported the state’s dairy industry for more than 100 years, providing research, outreach and teaching. Bradford said he plans to unite all of the university’s resources in one central repository to help advance the industry in both good and bad times.
“Our primary mission is to help support the dairy industry to be sustainable,” Bradford said. “For that to happen, we have to provide the tools to help people make it through these tough situations and come out the other end, and continue producing a valuable product for society. That doesn’t mean that within our small dairy team that we have all those resources. But we should work with this huge network within the university and collaborators across the state, where we have really broad expertise, and we should really be bringing all those tools to bear.”
MSU Extension provides dairy producers with a number of resources, including market research, marketing plans, labor management, animal care and efficiency with employees and resources. Some farmers, such as Beebe, also host MSU research plots on their farms.