“In terms of the nutritional bang for the buck, there’s probably nothing better than a glass of milk,” USDA Secretary Vilsack said recently when he addressed the U.S. House Committee on Education and Workforce.  

Despite milk’s nutritional appeal and the fact that the U.S. is now the world’s largest cheese-exporting country in the world, the dairy industry in the U.S. is going through yet another episode of low market prices for raw milk.  Many dairy operations barely recovered from a milk price recession that began around 2008 and continued through most of the next five years; innovative operations thrived but many marginalized operations ceased, reflecting the ongoing modernization and consolidation within the industry.   

Worldwide, there is currently a lot of milk available.  Cows, and other dairy animals nearly everywhere are producing more milk per animal, as well as specific types of milk suited for particular products like heavy cream. 

In the competition for economic gain, the industry has become cutthroat to the point that ever fewer dairy farmers can survive in traditional bovine operations, especially those that are small and use outmoded facilities.  Dairy producers in Canada, Europe, Australia, and most exporting countries say they feel the economic pressures too.

The glut of milk on the market comes at a bad time for producers.  Consumption of fluid milk has been decreasing for several decades in the U.S and falling behind other beverages. 

According to a recent Huffington Post article, in 2011 the average American drank 20.4 gallons of milk, as compared to 44.7 gallons of soda, 28.3 gallons of bottled water, 20.8 gallons of beer, 18.5 gallons of coffee, 11.5 gallons of fruit juices and 10.3 gallons of tea. 

There are many shifts in market trends for dairy producers to ponder.  Organic milk producers are finding ever more customers for their milk. 

Independent dairy producers who disperse their products through their own retail outlets, such as home delivery and specialty cheese shops, are finding profitable niches. 

Currently, almost half of all U.S. raw milk is processed into cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream and other dairy products.  Consumption of most dairy items has remained fairly steady over the past several years, except for cheese and yogurt, which are increasing considerably among U.S. residents. 

Consumers like to try new foods, which may explain why they like milk from water buffalo for mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, and milk from goats, sheep and camels that furnish unique-tasting foods. 

There is interest among adventurous Americans to try airag, a mildly alcoholic drink that Mongolians derive from fermented mares’ milk, as well as to sample butter tea, a staple drink among Tibetans and other Himalayan people.

Milk is nature’s most complete food.   We associate drinking milk with good health. 

Besides being the first food most humans and mammals consume, milk remains an important part of many people’s diets throughout life, whether it is produced by animals or derived from soybeans, almonds, coconuts or other plants.

Seeking mothers’ milk is programmed into our genetic makeup, for infants are born with a sucking reflex.  That infants of most mammalian species benefit from colostrum for disease resistance during early infancy also supports the genetic proclivity to crave milk early in life. 

Lactose intolerance is suppressed in humans until babies achieve several months of age.  Many humans lack the ability to digest lactose after early childhood.  

Most people of European origin and any regions that have relied on milk from cows or other mammals for centuries have a preponderance of people who can tolerate lactose after infancy, but people from cultures that did not keep dairy animals often don’t tolerate lactose well.

Now that milk-processing methods can remove lactose, lactose-intolerant residents of such traditional non-dairy countries as China and Japan don’t develop milk-induced tummy aches anymore and now enjoy ice cream, cheese and fluid milk.   

Is this another “hang-in-there” episode or a signal for milk producers to change something?  It’s a tough call to make a change in agricultural methods at a time when profits are hard to come by. 

Fortunately, feed costs are lower for most producers, especially for grain, than during some recent years, except perhaps for high-quality hay.  Wet weather made it difficult to harvest rain-free alfalfa hay in many parts of the U.S. this year. 

Dairy producers might want to explore opportunities for modifying their businesses by conferring with milk processors about specialty markets and by attending seminars and dairy industry conferences to consider options to improve the efficiency of their operations.   

Dairy producers should be sure to check at local Farm Service Agency offices for catastrophic margin protections and indemnity for lost animals that could benefit some producers.   

Happily for dairy farmers and people in general, almost everyone likes milk in some form.

Dr. Mike says he milked too many cows by hand while growing up and he is happy that other dairy producers now handle these responsibilities, even though he still likes cows, and milk.  To contact Dr. Mike, go to www.agbehavioralhealth.com.