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Steve Combs finishes milking at his farm. The price that dairy farmers receive for raw milk has dropped nearly 50 percent since last fall. So far, consumer prices for dairy products have not dropped. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)

Milk prices slashed in half for farmers

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It's 11 below zero at 6:15 a.m., and Steve and Amy Combs are just finishing milking their 100-head Holstein dairy herd.

As the cows file in and out of the old-style dairy barn on the family farm west of New London, the farm report on the radio delivers a string of futures markets for milk that are not good.

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Since last fall, when milk prices peaked at $20 a hundredweight, the price Combs and other dairy farmers now receive for their product has been nearly cut in half.

It's one of the biggest swings Combs has seen in his 30 years of milking.

"It's going to be a struggle just to break even this year, I think," said Combs, who expects to be "working at a loss" for much of the year.

"Just terrible," is how Matt Quade, division manager for Associated Milk Producers Inc. in Paynesville and Dawson, describes the last two months for milk prices.

"It's taken a big-time downward spiral, and it's not done yet. It's very serious," Quade said.

Milk prices were strong until the middle of December. "And then it dropped like a rock," said Quade, catching most people off guard. "This was not seen by anybody."

In 2008, raw milk prices were high and generated good revenue for dairy farmers. But feed costs and operating expenses were also very high.

"So our profits were still good but they weren't as good as they could've been," Combs said.

Feed has come down in price, but prices are "not half of what they were last year," he said. His paycheck from the milk buyer, however, is half of what it was last year.

"You take the good with the bad and keep struggling through and, hopefully, in the end you come out ahead," he said.

"There's no way farmers can survive on these prices," said Quade.

There are several reasons for the quick price drop for farmers, including overproduction and under-consumption -- both domestically and internationally. European subsidies were also increased, which decreased the demand for American milk products.

But so far there has not been a reciprocal drop in milk or cheese prices at grocery stores.

"Although we fully expect lower farm milk prices to be reflected in the dairy value chain, processors, distributors and stores will ultimately make that determination," said Carolyn Hudson, who works in public relations for the Midwest Dairy Association.

But, she said, "No one knows exactly what will happen."

Just like the price of gas that took a while to come down after oil prices decreased, there may be a lag time in when consumers see lower dairy prices at the store.

"Food prices at retail stores are generally a reflection of a combination of factors," said Chris Murphy, director of communications at Cub Foods. "A change in a single pricing input is not always a determining factor in the price consumers pay for a given product."

Murphy said the store strives to "pass savings on to our customers" and provide the "best available value."

Because part of the problem with low raw milk prices is because of overproduction and under-consumption, the Midwest Dairy Association is using dairy check-off dollars to team up with Dominos Pizza to give a short-term boost to cheese sales.

The pizza maker has developed a new line of "American Legend" specialty pizzas that use 40 percent more cheese than a regular pizza, said Sherry Newell, industry relations manager for the Midwest Dairy Association.

Pizza consumption has a direct impact on cheese sales, according to the association's CEO, Mike Kruger. About 25 percent of total cheese is used on pizzas, which accounts for more than 25 billion pounds of annual milk production.

Hudson, a registered and licensed dietitian, said Americans are not only in an economic recession but also a "nutrient recession" because they are eating more calories but getting less nutrition. She said consuming milk, cheese and yogurt is a way for people to "spend their food dollar wisely" and get more "bang for the buck" when it comes to nutrition.

The price farmers receive has been so low the prices have dipped below the federal price supports in recent weeks.

The average price for raw milk in 2008 was $18.25 a hundredweight, said Quade. The January price is $11 and it will be $10 this month.

"That's pretty much in a nutshell where it is," he said. "It's going to be ugly these next couple months, especially if the market stays where it's at."

The futures market doesn't show much improvement.

That's been prompting farmers to sign up for the Milk Income Loss Contract, said Wes Nelson, director of the Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County. "We've had producers in real steady this month," he said.

The program, which was extended in the new farm bill, pays 45 percent of the difference between the average price and the target Boston milk price of $16.94.

"It's a little help, but it's certainly not a money maker," Combs said.

Farmers knew the high prices from 2008 wouldn't last forever, but they are a little spooked by the sudden drop in price. "They're concerned about it," Nelson said. They're hoping it's cyclical and that prices will even out again.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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