WAUMANDEE, Wis. – Milk-supply management is a hot topic among dairy farmers, especially in western Wisconsin where dairy expansions are limited by rugged terrain. When several dairy producers recently met for a round-table discussion to talk supply, the opinions were diverse yet very much alike.
The common ground the Wisconsin farmers found was that something needs to be done to alleviate the current oversupply and depressed-pay situation.
“The point is we have too much milk and we need to start there,” said Joe Bragger of Independence, who has a 300 -cow herd. “It’s going to be a challenge. Some people think this is our last shot to get something started.”
Nathan Kling owns two herds, an organic of 150 cows and a conventional of 250.
“We farmers have always tried to do a better job, which is why production has increased,” he said of the oversupply:
Jack Herricks of Cashton in Monroe County agrees with that observation.
“It’s pretty simple; we continue to get more efficient,” he said.
He said he believes expanding comes too easy on modern farms.
“When we started we had stone walls; adding on (then) was a big change,” he said.
Modern techniques such as automatic feeding, tunnel ventilation and comfort stalls also contribute to the increase in milk.
It’s in the details of what a supply-management plan would look like where differences become apparent. The farmers all agree that it needs to happen one step at a time. Deciding on the specifics will happen after the basic concept is commonly accepted among dairy farmers.
Bragger illustrated that idea when he metaphorically said, “Eating an elephant is done one bite at a time.”
Retired dairyman Loren Wolfe of Waumandee said, “Hopefully, we’re at the point for action.”
Traditionally talking supply management has not been a popular topic.
“Nobody wanted to talk supply management because everybody equates it with a dollar value on the quota,” said Steve Kling of Taylor in Jackson County who milks 45 cows.
Having a system similar to Canada or Europe does not necessarily mean that would be the model for a U.S. program, although all agree that three things are essential – a fair price, a national program and a curb on production.
What it would not be wanted, they said, are some of the programs tried in the past.
“We don’t want to advocate cow killing; it would be tough to get American consumers to agree,” Herricks said, referring to the dairy-buyout program of the late 1980s.
Brad Goplin from Osseo, a young farmer with 100 cows, says he doesn’t want a money subsidy because he thinks it looks bad to shoppers.
“With strategic planning we can increase the price $20 and raise income 33 percent while increasing the price in the store 43 cents a gallon,” Herricks said.
He said he thinks that’s an acceptable cost for consumers.
Nathan Kling said he thinks Herricks’ goals can be achieved by cutting production.
“If we do it on a percentage basis, we will get more (farmers) buying into it,” he said. “A 1 (percent) to 2 percent shift can make a big difference.”
Steve Kling and Bragger compared milk to other commodities that have production limits – such as cranberries, blueberries and tobacco.
“We already have tiered programs for other commodities; the challenge will be getting large dairies to agree,” Kling said.
Pat Danzinger of Alma said, “Anybody under 5,000 cows is going to want this and the reason is scale of efficiency. The guys with 5,000 cows or more are going to strong-arm the buyers, saying we can produce this much at this price.”
The solution would be a national program so production doesn’t move from one area of the country to another to avoid participation, the group said. That’s why the group thinks milk buyers need to be in agreement on a supply plan without being in charge of it.
“(With buyers in charge) they will deal under the table and move loads of milk,” Danzinger said.
Herricks said, “Co-ops look out for themselves before their member owners.”
Putting the government in charge was not a popular option, although they thought the government might need to enforce a supply program.
But Danzinger disagrees.
“The only way to do it is for the government to step in,” he said. “It’s all or nothing like health care – either the government should take it over or leave it alone.”
One suggestion was for the Milk Marketing Board – now called the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin – to take over supply management.
“They already have an organization in place,” Herricks said. “They would have to change some of their direction.”
Steve Kling summarized the group thoughts.
“We need something that works for rural America,” he said. “We need a way for people to make a living. We’ve been told we need to feed another billion people by 2050. We can’t do that if we’re broke.”
Joe Bragger of Independence has crunched the numbers. He says the new trade agreement with Canada is too little too late. Exports to Canada are expected to increase by 3.59 percent under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement recently negotiated.
If Canada buys American milk products, it would take 6,050 cows to fill the increase. Put that in everyone’s milk check and it comes out to pennies per farm.
“Let’s stop being excited and misleading people before we understand reality,” he said.
The trade deal is dependent on approval in all three countries’ governments. If approved it will not go into effect until 2020. Bragger said trade is a big part of marketing milk. Trade numbers are at a record high, but he said he thinks dependence on trade to turn around the dairy price is unrealistic.
“There must be a belief that we can attain some mythical trade level that will eat up our oversupply, a level way beyond anything experienced before,” he said. “Oops, we did that and it didn’t help. Do we want to purposefully consider all options, calculate real positives and negatives, and work to build a future for dairy that all can take part in with pride?”