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We roll up our sleeves

Progressive Dairy Editor Dave Natzke Published on 11 March 2020

When anti-dairy protesters take off their shirts and dump milk on each other during a presidential candidate’s campaign event, you know we’re dealing with nuts – literally and figuratively.

Hollywood is in the act, and there’s been a truckload of “milk is dead” or “dairy is dead” headlines delivered in my Google alert inbox. Welcome to an age where you can do or say anything to gain attention for your agenda.

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With all that noise, I was curious about what kind of responses I’d get as I put together our annual “State of Dairy” feature. By many measurements, the state of dairy is one of struggle. One of the most glaring USDA statistics shows there were 3,281 fewer dairy farms (about 8.8% less) in 2019 compared to a year earlier. The personal toll has been enormous. Two major dairy companies declared bankruptcy.

But I also found that, instead of taking off their shirts, dairy people do what dairy people always do: They roll up their sleeves and solve problems. If dairy people are anything, they’re problem-solvers.

  • They serve others: So far this year, 133 dairy/non-profit organization partnerships have been approved for USDA funds under the Milk Donation Reimbursement Program, which helps cover costs associated with delivering fluid milk to low-income people in need.

  • They’re environmentalists: Farmers are dramatically reducing their carbon footprints and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through various means, including turning manure into fuel.

  • They’re innovative: From Darigold FIT and fairlife to farmstead operations, there’s large-scale investment and innovation in all dairy product categories.

  • They’re technology-savvy: From cow health and feedbunk monitoring to robotic milkers, dairy farmers leverage technology to improve management.

A common theme in the “dairy is dead” mantra is that fluid milk consumption is down. Let me theorize: Some of that has to do with our ages.

Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) statistics show about 70% of U.S. households do not have any children. At the suggestion of a dairy farmer, I did some further digging, searching for something called a “population pyramid.” By age, children in the 0-4, 5-9 and 10-14 age groups were among the three smallest U.S. population categories in 2020. Since 1970, the median age in the U.S. has increased 10 years, from 28.4 to 38.3 years, and it’s expected to continue to rise.

Despite that, DMI notes that dairy products are found in 97% of American households. What’s changed is in what form dairy products are consumed. Even though fluid milk consumption is down, per-capita consumption of all dairy (on a milk-equivalent, milkfat basis) is at a six-decade high.

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I’ll offer myself as an example. I’m well over the median age and, even though I drink milk at every meal at home and order milk with every lunch I eat outside of home, I know my milk consumption has dropped since I was younger. At the same time, I consume well over 1 pound of cheese a week – I know, I do a lot of the grocery shopping, and it’s on the list every week. (Don’t worry, I’ve lost 35 pounds in the past nine months by increasing the number of steps I take each day – and then rewarding myself with cheese curds.)

All the headlines generated from anti-dairy forces could have been rough on our collective psyches; they affected me, and I don’t have to walk to a barn every frigid morning. To quote Col. Sherman Potter in a rerun of an episode of MASH I just saw: “Nobody is perfect, but lately I’m feeling a lot less perfect than I like.”

I’ve had enough of our winter of discontent. March is here, and with it comes spring. I think we’ll shed our winter coats and then roll up our sleeves, like we always do.  end mark

Dave Natzke
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