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What will have the greatest impact on dairying in the future?

Calvin Covington for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2018
What will have the greatest impact on dairying?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with one of my dairy farmer friends. This dairyman is a well-respected and known leader in the dairy industry. He told me about participating in a recent meeting of agriculture leaders.

At the meeting, he was asked the question, “What one single thing will have the greatest impact on agriculture in the future?” My friend told me there were a variety of answers given by participants. They ranged from prices to environmental regulations. His answer was: the consumer. Consumers, he said, will have the greatest single impact on his dairy operation in the future.

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After thinking about the question and about all the various things that impact dairying, I agree with my friend’s answer. Consumers will have the greatest impact on dairying in the future. Yes, consumers have always impacted dairy, but their influence is growing and expanding.

When I began my career in the dairy industry, there were generally just two consumer concerns about dairy in my part of the world. In the spring, consumers complained about fluid milk having an onion flavor and smell. (Springs in North Carolina produce a bumper crop of wild onions.)

The second was during the holiday season, when the whipping cream would not always whip. Back then, consumer concerns stayed local and did not make the newspapers. There was no internet or social media, and concerns were addressed relatively quickly.

Today, as we all know, things have changed. Consumer concerns have gone far beyond onion-flavored milk and cream that does not whip. The expanding use and acceptance of social media makes it easier and quicker for consumers to communicate their desires and concerns.

And dairy processors, manufacturers and, especially, retail grocers quickly respond to consumers, and consumers expect them to respond almost instantaneously. A local consumer concern can soon become a national concern. A dairy farm found not properly handling cattle on the East Coast can impact dairy sales on the West Coast.

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Animal welfare

Looking to the future, I see consumers having more impact on dairying in three areas. The first is animal welfare. Consumers continue to increase their concern of how the cows that produce the milk their dairy products are made from are handled. The national Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program, and its continuing revisions, along with almost all of the nation’s dairy farmers participating in the program, performs admirably in responding to consumer concerns about animal welfare.

However, in the future, I see consumers expanding their voices regarding animal welfare. They will become more concerned about the type of facilities used to house cows and youngstock, when calves are separated from their mothers, the practice of dehorning and the source of feedstuffs. We must not forget, outside of dairy, consumers were behind ballot initiatives in some states which banned gestation crates for sows and require eggs from cage-free laying hens.

Technology

The second is technology. In 1950, it took almost 24 million dairy cows to produce 115 billion pounds of milk. Today, it takes only 9.4 million cows to produce 215 billion pounds of milk. The development and implementation of a variety of technologies made this vast improvement in productivity possible. Today, and into the future, there will be even more technologies developed which can improve the productivity of the dairy industry. However, I see one major change.

In past years, dairy farmers made the choice of whether to use a new technology or not, in most cases. Granted, there were some instances the farmer had a limited choice, if they were going to have a milk market, such as switching from milk cans to bulk tanks. But most of the time, the farmer made the decision in regards to adopting new technology. Examples include A.I. versus natural breeding, injecting cows with rBST and genetically modified seeds.

Looking into the future, I see the consumer playing a greater role or even being the deciding factor in whether a dairy farmer is able to adapt to a new technology. It has already occurred with rBST, with almost all milk markets not accepting milk from cows treated with rBST. It was primarily consumers, and supermarkets responding to consumers, who influenced the almost complete elimination of rBST.

The same is starting to happen with genetically modified crops and genetic engineering. Consumers will play a greater role in the future of which technologies dairy farmers may or may not use.

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Product diversity

The third area is the products that appear on a grocery store’s shelves. Just as with animal welfare and technology, consumers are having a greater influence on the products produced by dairy processors and manufacturers, as well as the products found in supermarkets’ dairy or ice cream sections. Growing consumer influence started with organic products. At the beginning of this century, one had to search to find organic milk or cheese in a grocery store. Now organic dairy products are commonplace. Consumers asked for organic, and grocers responded.

We are now seeing the response of consumers asking for dairy alternatives. Ben & Jerry’s, the well-known international ice cream brand, now has a non-dairy frozen dessert. It uses almonds in place of milk. Ben & Jerry’s said this non-dairy product is in response to high consumer demand wanting a 100 percent certified-vegan product.

My article in the December 12, 2017 issue of Progressive Dairyman titled “Are more products in the fluid milk case a good or bad thing?” pointed out from 2013 to 2015 (latest USDA data available), plant-based beverages had decreased the market share of cow’s milk by almost 2 percent. The growing presence of plant-based products in supermarket milk cases is in response to consumers, including those opposing animal agriculture.

In conclusion, my dairy farmer friend has been right many more times than he has been wrong. Current indications point to him being right again. The consumer will have the greatest impact on the dairy industry in the future. Some in the dairy industry may find it challenging to respond even more to consumer demands regarding animal welfare and the technologies they can or cannot use. However, we must remember: It is the consumer of dairy products that makes dairying a business.

Dairy faces increased competition for a share of the consumer’s stomach from products portraying themselves as dairy. The number of people who advocate an end to consuming any food from animals, including dairy, is growing. The industry must continue to do its best to responsively react to consumer demands to keep and grow its market share, and keep us all in business.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Calvin Covington
  • Calvin Covington

  • Retired Dairy Co-op Executive
  • Email Calvin Covington

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