Joaquin Phoenix, trade wars, the coronavirus, and the price of milk 

(Photo courtesy Nevada Dairymen & Dairy Council of Nevada)

Libby Lovig of the Nevada Dairyman’s Association was watching the Oscars when Joaquin Phoenix accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor.

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby,” Phoenix told a television audience of more than 23 million. “We take her milk that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

Lovig says her mouth fell open. 

“I never think that’s a good place for political statements anyway,” she says. “I know he’s vegan and he has strong feelings. He’s entitled to what he believes.”

“If he [Phoenix] studied the commitment of dairy farmers to animal welfare and had a fuller understanding of the contribution of dairy products to a nutritious diet, especially for children, he might have a different perception of the value that dairy contributes to global health and the importance of the dairy sector to global livelihood,” said Alan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, in a statement to media.  Bjerga did not respond to calls from the Current.

Not all experts agree that milk, a substance designed by nature to fatten calves, does a body good — especially growing bodies.

“Consumption of cow’s milk by infants and toddlers has adverse effects on their iron stores, a finding that has been well documented in many localities,” says the National Institutes of Health. “Several mechanisms have been identified that may contribute to iron deficiency in this young population group. … The high protein intake from cow’s milk may also place infants at increased risk of obesity in later childhood. It is thus recommended that unmodified, unfortified cow’s milk not be fed to infants and that it be fed to toddlers in modest amounts only.”

Vegans and others concerned about the health, environmental and ethical implications of animal agriculture are spurring a non-dairy revolution – replacing foods traditionally made from animals with plant substitutes.

Sales of “milk” made from soy, almonds and oatmeal are up 61 percent during the last five years, according to Mintel, a marketing research agency.   

“I’d imagine Joaquin Phoenix has never stepped foot on a farm,” says Fallon farmer Isidro Alves, owner of Sand Hill Dairy.  “I don’t think he’s one to talk.” 

Phoenix was named Person of the Year for 2019 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Alves says his cows are “treated like queens, like the majority of animals in this country. If they’re not treated well, we don’t get production.”

But Alves confirms calves are separated from their mothers after birth, as Phoenix complained on live television.

“Dairy cows can’t stay with their calves. They produce too much milk. It’s not practical. That’s not what they’re intended for,” he says. 

“Weaning is a difficult thing to study, because how an animal feels can only be measured through their behavior,” Sara Shields, a behavior and welfare specialist at Humane Society International, told Civil Eats in 2016. “But we know there’s a relationship between mother and offspring that has evolved over millennia. It’s important to understand and respect it.”

“The babies need to be pulled from their moms so they don’t get squished or stepped on,” says Lovig of the Nevada Dairymen’s Association, who says the separation comes hours after birth when the calf is able to stand. “The mama cows are not as careful as they need to be.”   

“Mama’s milked and we make sure the baby gets the colostrum and vaccinations and we watch them until they’re big enough to go into a pen with other calves,” she says. “A happy, healthy cow is a happy, healthy producer.”   

Alves says his dairy cows “are bred a little” to produce more milk. 

“It’s through artificial insemination.  We’re breeding the cows with technology.  We’re being progressive,” he says.  

Activists argue not only is dairy farming cruel to cows and their calves, it’s an environmental nightmare. 

Animal agriculture was responsible for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Fertilizers, soil management and irrigation practices account for almost half of emissions from agriculture, says the EPA.  Methane production from cattle represents about one-third, and manure disposal methods account for about 14 percent of greenhouse gases.  

Supply & demand

Despite environmental and ethical concerns, dairy prices began to rebound in the last quarter of 2019, as trade wars with China forced U.S. producers to diversify by entering other markets.  

Last year, U.S. dairy exports hit $6 billion, up eight percent from 2018.

Nevada had 32,000 dairy cows in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up from 29,000 in 2014.  But milk production has fallen from 23,793 pounds per cow (the USDA measures milk production in pounds) in 2014 to 22,938 in 2018.  Production hit a low of 22,000 pounds per cow in 2016.

Nevada has 25 dairy farms, according to the Department of Agriculture, two-thirds of which are in Fallon.

The Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) operates a co-op in Fallon that exports dried, powdered milk, much of it to Asia.

The DFA’s net sales from operations nationwide totaled $13.6 billion in 2018, down from $14.7 billion in 2017.

“The decrease is primarily a result of lower milk prices,” the DFA said in a news release last year. “U.S. milk price averaged $16.20 per hundredweight in 2018 compared with $17.65 in 2017.”

The Nevada Department of Agriculture pegs the economic contribution of the dairy and milk production industry to the state at $48 million in 2017. Production created 227 jobs worth $6.9 million to the state economy. That pencils out to a little more than $30,000 a year per job.

“In 2017, available milk production for sale in Nevada was estimated at 703 million pounds,” says the state Department of Agriculture. “Total milk sales increased by 18% from $107 million in 2016 to $126 million in 2017.”

But Donald Trump’s trade wars put a crimp in demand.

“Partially because of the tariffs, we reached out to other markets. We diversified,” says Lovig. “It’s stable.  It’s good. It’s not necessarily growing but it’s stable. With the tariffs being lifted to some degree, it’s helped a lot.”

Now, the dairy industry faces another obstacle to regaining its prominence in Asian markets — the deadly coronavirus spreading throughout China.  

The price of whole milk powder dropped by 6.2 percent last week at the global dairy trade auction in New Zealand.

“Fears about coronavirus reducing global dairy demand certainly drove the drop in powder prices at last week’s Global DT; but prices didn’t fall as far as feared,” Nate Donnay, director of dairy market insight at INTL FCStone, told Agriland, a trade publication out of Dublin. “Since the auction we’ve seen powder prices in the U.S. bounce higher and some slight firming in spot prices in the EU.”

“Coronavirus continues to spread, but a combination of supply concerns in New Zealand and traders waiting to get a feel for actual demand impacts are keeping prices from falling further,” Donnay said.

“U.S. exports of dairy products to China have been significantly reduced recently by the trade war and retaliatory tariffs implemented by China,” says Michael Lichte, Vice President, Milk Optimization and Customer Relations for DFA Ingredient Solutions. “Coronavirus certainly will have some near term negative impact on overall Chinese demand, but it shouldn’t directly impact Fallon exports more than what has already occurred due to the retaliatory tariffs.”

We may see a slight decline but nobody seems to feel it’s going to be appreciable,” says Lovig of the Nevada Dairymen’s Association. “There will still be demand for good, clean product, even if people are sick.”

Alves also seems unconcerned.  

“We’re fine. We’re farmers. We’re getting by.” 

Dana Gentry
Senior Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.