Problems and technology solutions within the milk supply chain

Milk, the one dairy product that just cannot miss at the table of every family around the United States, even around the world. Milk and all its derivate (dairy products) are in the basic diet of almost everybody. We all know where all these products come from, or at least we think we do. And yet we may not understand how they actually get to our table with such freshness or such taste. Well, here is a little insight to that “milk” supply chain, the problems that can arise and how technology is tackling the challenges of the future to come.

The dairy supply chain has its beginnings at more than 45.000 dairy farms throughout the  United States. In order to get the milk, the cows are “connected” to pipes that go directly to tanks that are near the location.  Here, milk has to be stored at  40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and it cannot pass the 48 hours threshold. After this, trucks take the milk to a dairy processor, where all the proper testing is done which includes being bacteria free and being chilled as it is supposed to be. Then the milk that fails to pass such tests is discarded.

Milk takes approximately 2 days to reach the supermarket’s shelves after it has left the farm when the last step is completed which is when the milk is homogenized, pasteurized, packaged, and shipped to retailers in refrigerated trucks. Products that come from milk such as cheese or butter take longer to reach the supermarket.

After knowing this, we can understand that keeping milk fresh is a bit of a problem. The industry is fragmented, and as for the year 2012, only 1,800 farms had at least 1,000 cows which made it very difficult to cover the demand that the market was asking for. Add to that that milk cannot be transported in other in other types of transportation systems (that can be faster) different from trucks because of its weight and this leads to a high risk of expiration and spoilage.

Another problem that affects the milk supply chain industry is that the current weight limit for trucks does not allow them to use the whole capacity that trucks have for such matter. This is due to plants and farms growing in an exponential way and due to an old and outdated federal transportation rule that makes trucks leave the loading center when they are not at their full capacity because they have reached their capacity limit.  

A very common problem or challenge if you may call it, is that cows are not machines that can be programmed to milk whenever we want. So, while a lot of the main production for cows comes in spring, the consumption does not come immediately. So, farmers need to have the production to handle the peak months, and also face hard months where they have unused capacity.

So here is where technology comes into play. A farmer that has been in the business for more than 50 years and has such knowledge of cows that he or she can know when the cow is different can benefit from radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. These tags tell the owners or managers when a cow is eating or resting, how is its health going and measure the animal’s temperature. Farmers can no longer rely on their instincts because the market and the demands have changed so much that now the supply chain for milk has grown bigger and more sophisticated due to many new dairy products such as organic and Greek yogurt,  lactose-free milk and single-serve packages of ice cream.

milk suplly chain_supermarket_technology
Image courtesy of Mike Mozart at Flickr.com

Another reason that the supply chain for milk is very complex is the legislation and its many regulations.  The Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law in 2011 made all the previous testing and regulations that were already tight, even tighter. One example is the March 31, 2016, deadline that talks about all the regulations that had to be met when it comes to sanitary transportation of food.

But everything is not blurred and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Precision dairy farming is becoming very trendy now and one of its examples is the robotic milking machine. Basically milking is done by robotic arms and the system can manage impurities or other problems. These robotic arms offer many benefits such as farmers being able to milk their cows when they know they are ready and not fix to a schedule for doing so; a reduction in the workforce for milking cows that is very hard to find; and a long term investment that appears to be big at the beginning but that levels out in favor of the farmers.

So these are some of the milk issues that are arising in the industry nowadays. Before it was easy to just milk the cows and transport the milk to stores. Nowadays it is a bit complicated due to the size of the market and the different dairy product that the brands have invented.

Be sure to also read this post about the best warehousing tips to keep in mind

* Featured Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture – NRCS at Flickr.com

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