Summer 2020


Interior of a dairy barn. In the background, Holstein cows gather behind a metal fence; in the foreground, a puddle of spilled milk.
Milk puddles on the brick floor of a dairy barn. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in dairy markets, farmer were forced to dump the milk they worked so hard to produce. So experts from UW delivered a webinar that offered a more financially friendly alternative. Photo: Drury


Imagine the hard work of running a dairy farm — the relentless hours, the uncertainty over everything from the weather to prices, the worries about disease in your herd. Now imagine that, against all these odds, you have successfully produced thousands of gallons of milk.

And then you find out that, thanks to a worldwide crisis over which you have no control, all of that good milk must be dumped. Discarded. Destroyed.

“No farmer likes doing something like this,” says Mark Stephenson, an extension dairy market analyst at CALS and director of the Center on Dairy Profitability. “It’s a big economic loss. But it’s much more than that for farmers.”

Think of it this way: How would you like to see your life’s work swirling down the drain?

Stephenson was one of several CALS extension specialists who stepped up for Wisconsin farmers when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic crashed traditional markets for milk, leaving dairy farmers with nowhere to sell their product. It happened quickly. Word of a highly contagious coronavirus arose in the U.S. in January. By late March, the alarming rate of its spread had prompted the shutdown of everything from restaurants to hotels to schools and their lunch programs.

Three young children drink milk from paper cartons at a school lunch table.
Children drink milk during lunch in a school cafeteria. When K-12 schools started closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a major market for dairy farmers quickly evaporated. Photo:

The disruption of the farm markets was immediate and difficult to correct quickly, says Stephenson. Farmers produce milk daily, and it has to go somewhere, he adds. But when markets shut off and the milk keeps coming, alternative markets are difficult to find.

“We develop supply chains with remarkable efficiency,” Stephenson says. “But that efficiency comes at the cost of resiliency.”

Dairy farmers were in need of guidance, and UW delivered. In an April 7 webinar, Stephenson teamed up with many other university experts to help farmers better understand the virus and the markets it crippled. Presenters also described how to responsibly spread excess milk on croplands.

For example, the webinar taught farmers how to account for the nutrient content of milk when calculating spreading rates, how to calibrate field application equipment, what soils are appropriate for milk application, and how to adjust for different crops — information they can use to take advantage of milk’s value as a nutrient and avoid causing environmental damage.

The webinar, jointly sponsored by the Nutrient and Pest Management Program, CALS, and the UW–Madison Division of Extension, was a timely response to what turned out to be a worldwide crisis. The pandemic seemed to touch every aspect of life, and emerging news coverage depicted dire circumstances for agriculture.

On April 11, The New York Times reported that farmers across the country were burying vegetables such as onions, plowing under beans and cabbage, and dumping milk. At that time, the Dairy Farmers of America estimated as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk per day were being destroyed.

Thousands of gallons were being dumped in Wisconsin, although totals to date are not available. On April 10, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that one farm near Westby was dumping 25,000 gallons per day. It was an unusual and uncomfortable situation for Wisconsin farmers.

“Disposal like this hardly ever happens,” says Stephenson. He adds that dumping has tailed off considerably as state and federal agencies have helped find uses for the milk through community food programs and elsewhere.

But in those early days, dairy farmers had a critical need for some counsel. And that’s precisely why the webinar was put together in less than a week, says Carrie Laboski, an extension specialist and professor in the Department of Soil Science who helped organize the program. She also made a presentation in her role as interim director of NPM.

Paul Natzke FISC’85, who operates an 1,800-cow farm in Brown County, was one of hundreds of farmers who listened in on the webinar. “I was getting mentally prepared, just in case,” Natzke says.

It was an inopportune time for farmers like Natzke to face such a crisis. Manure pits were full, as they usually are at winter’s end, and this was exacerbated by heavy rains. There was really nowhere to put the milk, so Natzke was interested in learning more about landspreading, the primary topic of the webinar. The idea of having to dump the milk he had worked so hard to produce was disheartening. “It was terrible,” Natzke recalls.

As it turned out, Natzke avoided having to dispose of milk. But he said the webinar was a valuable offering from the university to help farmers prepare. And spreading on cropland was a much smarter alternative than just turning a spigot and watching the milk run out.

A red tractor pulls a manure spreader across a muddy field.
A tractor pulls a manure spreader across a field. In a recent webinar, held in response to dairy market disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UW experts shared information about landspreading milk and milk-manure mixtures with farmers. Photo: Sevie Kenyon

Back in April, Laboski says, at least some farmers were simply dumping milk onto the ground or into their manure lagoons. So it became important to remind farmers that milk contains nutrients that can fertilize cropland. It’s rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and also contains potassium and sulfur — all of which are necessary for healthy crop yields.

“This was a terrible situation, having to dump milk,” Laboski says. “What we wanted was for them to think of it as a fertilizer so we could gain some value back.”

Spreading milk on cropland, however, creates another set of problems that the webinar had to address. Sometimes milk is a pollutant. In large quantities, it can contaminate waterways and kill fish by sucking up oxygen to an even greater degree than manure. So Laboski and her colleagues provided webinar participants, including crop specialists and consultants, with information on how to safely spread milk and milk-manure mixtures.

“We needed them to consider the environmental consequences of spreading,” Laboski says.

Based on evaluations, the webinar was both popular and successful. Laboski said nearly 630 participants signed on for the live presentation. And it has accumulated more than 1,000 views, some of them from places as distant as Europe and Canada’s Prince Edward Island. It proved a perfect example of how CALS and UW can carry out the public service mission of the university during a time of crisis when farmers are desperate for help.

“It shows the potential of what we can offer,” said Laboski. “It shows it is possible to put together a rapid response. And it shows the quality of work we can do in CALS and in Extension.”

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