Dairy industry leaders say federal help is needed to save the industry amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Dairy Business Association and Edge Farmer Cooperative held a conference call for media on Thursday, April 2, to discuss confirmed reports of milk disposal and the industry’s call on the U.S. Department of Agriculture for direct aid to farmers and a massive dairy commodity purchase.

John Umhoefer, executive director of the Cheese Makers Association, said that dairy farms, processors, organizations and state departments of agriculture are all working together nonstop right now to "keep milk flowing and for the production of quality dairy products" to make it to consumers.

But he said it's been a huge struggle with the food service distribution channels severely disrupted by the pandemic. Nearly half of all the cheese sold in the U.S. moves through food service channels and a third is sold at retail grocery stores.

"The dairy supply chain is challenged at a level we've never seen before," said Umhoefer, who said the cheese industry has lost a great share of its largest market.

He said the dairy industry saw sales decline after 9/11 and the banking crisis in 2009, but neither will compare to the current situation, with half the restaurants in the U.S. closed or operating at a reduced level.

According to Umhoefer, the dairy industry is now looking at an "unprecedented challenge to find markets for milk."

He said that's why the dairy industry is asking the federal government to immediately purchase dairy products to offer to food pantries, school feeding programs and others in need: "So that dairy farms can continue to deliver fresh milk, and help America's food insecure families in these challenging times," Umhoefer said.

Tim Trotter, executive director of the Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, agreed with Umhoefer's statement that the current situation for the dairy industry was unprecedented.

"2020 was to be the rebound year for dairy, as we were all looking at depressed prices over the last three years" said Trotter. "Because of this devastating coronavirus, now we see an even more devastating outcome for dairy farmers."

There have been reports from across the state of Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest of milk being dumped by farmers, Trotter said. He said he was not aware of how many farmers have dumped milk, just that there were verified cases.

Trotter said the dairy industry needs Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to step in quickly and "give farmers that certainty that the government is going to be behind them like everyone else in the dairy supply chain."

"It's important that dairy processors, farmers and the food chain all work together to get through this," Trotter said. "I'm confident we can, but we need government support, we need their buy-in and solution."

Gordon Speirs, owner of Shiloh Dairy in Brillion, Wis., said in the last number of weeks they've lost 25% of their income just through the crashed markets.

"Now we face the reality of having to dump milk on top of that," he said.

He said the virus has had winners and losers in the dairy industry, with some processing facilities able to get products out and readily available to consumers, while others have not found a way.

"The pain, I believe, should be shared throughout the entire industry," he said. "Dairy farming is a 24/7 responsibility, and we're not the kind of factory that can just turn off the lights and say, 'We're going to start this back up in three or four weeks.'"

Speirs said the industry needs the USDA to act with the ability to purchase product and redistribute it to those in need.