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Dairy industry still trying to survive COVID-19

Seven percent of all milk produced in the nation goes to school lunchrooms. 60 percent of cheese in the U.S. is consumed out of the home.

Schools and restaurants that were closed due to COVID-19 are just two of the supply chain impacts that have put area dairy farmers in a tight spot.

Brent Pollard runs a dairy farm in rural Winnebago County southwest of Rockford. He has 70 milk cows and 800 acres of cropland and sells grain as well.

“We were getting $13.25 per hundredweight of milk with the situation,” Pollard said. “Most farmers look at $18-19 to break even. We were doing OK before the COVID stuff. It’s going to become more of a struggle. Dairy farmers have had a bad time since 2014. We thought 2020 would be a great year. It’s been a rough blow to our psychology. Dairy was already in survival mode to begin with.”

With restaurants reopening, milk markets have risen back to around $20 per hundredweight. Pollard says he’s lucky that most, if not all of his product goes to a plant in Rockford that produces small portions like gallon jugs, which are still in demand at grocery stores. His smaller farm will survive, he says. Others may not be as lucky.

Other farms were asked in recent months to dump milk due to there being nowhere to send it. Plants that supply milk in larger portions to places like restaurants had to shut down or cut back while they were closed. Ogle County Farm Bureau Manager Ron Kern said he read a in recent months about one farmer that dumped 4,700 gallons a day for two weeks.

“A lot of that is due to packaging,” Kern said. “They can’t switch over from bulk to retail sizing.”

Ogle County has just four dairy farms now, Kern said. Cows need to be milked every day, sometimes 2-3 times a day.

“We’ve lost a lot of dairy farms,” Pollard said. “With reopenings, everything is rebounding back to where we expected at the beginning of the year. We’re still trying to survive. We’re happy things are looking better. If we get another COVID scare, we realize the prices could drop again. We’re taking everything very cautiously.”

Pollard said he’s helped by the fact that he doesn’t have a lot of extra debt and that his wife works off the farm. He couldn’t imagine having to dump milk after putting so many hours into it. He’s downsized his usual number of cows due to losing money on the milk.

“Instead of milking 90 cows, we’re milking 70,” Pollard said. “It’s tough to lose money on every one. Why milk more? Half of our expenses go to just feeding them.”

For the farming industry as a whole, during the month of May corn was off 13 percent. Beans were off eight percent after being decimated recently. Cattle was off 25 percent and hogs were off 30 percent.

“The pandemic is doing a real number on agriculture,” Kern said. “I would hope when this is all over, people better understand how the food system works.”

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