If $1 milk is unsustainable, how is the Coles deal locking in pricing with Murray Goulburn a good thing? Good question. Has MG made a giant mistake? Will it mean a mass exodus by NSW dairy farmers and will the big co-op do its socks on the deal, taking the hopes of dairy farmers down, down, down with it? Blair Speedy of The Australian certainly seems to think so.
I decided to ask some rather blunt questions of two men in the know: independent dairy analyst, Jon Hauser of Xcheque and Murray Goulburn big-wig and general manager shareholder relations, Robert Poole.
1. How can MG make a profit supplying fresh milk to Coles if Lion could not?
Robert Poole refused to comment on Lion’s circumstances but said the co-op’s new factories would be “purpose-built, state of the art and the most efficient milk processing plants in Australia”.
“We will make a good return supplying Coles and will have the capacity to supply other customers in time, too, making even higher returns.”
Jon Hauser goes further. “I can see how 10 cents per litre in costs can readily be taken out of the chain,” he says. “There is a view in the dairy community that milk should be sold for more than a dollar per litre when it’s being sold cheaper than that right now in the USA and the United Kingdom. The local processors have been retaining much more of the milk dollar than international processors.”
2. What risk is there to the $120 million of farmers’ funds that will be spent on the new factories?
Poole says quite flatly that the cost of the factories is well and truly covered by the 10-year Coles contract: “We have total security. There will be no cross-subsidisation of this investment – it will be fully funded by the agreement with Coles.”.
3. Why hasn’t MG sold fresh milk into supermarkets before?
“Historically, we would have had to submit a tender for milk supply. And what, build factories in the hope that we won?,” says Poole. “This was a golden opportunity. Nobody gets a 10-year contract like this but Coles came to Murray Goulburn because it wanted to work with farmers.”
4. How does it work for MG?
According to Poole: “Under the supply agreement, the price to Coles is based on a farm-gate price and the cost of processing plus a comfortable profit margin. There’s a rise and fall clause that means the price reflects the changing value of the milk on international markets.”
Hauser explains that the New Zealand and Australian dairy industries are “price takers”, unlike the Europeans and Americans, who have greater control over pricing.
“Australia can’t control the export price but, reading between the lines, Murray Goulburn is using the Coles deal to increase its control over the price it gets for its milk and will position itself for a much greater role in the 2 billion-litre fresh milk market. Because MG will slash the cost of delivering fresh milk to supermarkets, I predict the co-op will be selling supermarkets a billion litres of fresh milk a year by 2023.”
“Aside from milk, the deal also allows MG to range its cheese, butter and spreads in Coles, which makes it even more attractive.”
5. Has the Coles and Murray Goulburn deal devalued milk?
Poole was ever the diplomat on this one, saying the retail price of milk was “up to the supermarkets”. Hauser is a tad more direct. “For people to say milk will be devalued is absolute rubbish,” he says. “This is a great deal for MG’s farmer members. Is it MG’s responsibility to stay out of the market and let nonsense economics run the show?”
6. How will this affect NSW dairy farmers?
Hauser says many NSW dairy farmers will need to reassess their businesses. Milk price in both NSW and Victoria will be based on a mixture of domestic and export value with the export market being a major driver of that value.
The man himself, Robert Poole, says the NSW price will reflect “supply and demand, international prices and a premium that takes into account the added costs associated with supplying exact volumes of milk every month of the year”.
Will it shake up the NSW dairy sector, with its large number of very small farms? Undoubtedly, says Hauser. “NSW’s dairy farmers sold themselves into trouble when they handed over the responsibility for, and the value of, their products to private processors, who have no interest in their viability. Ironically, it is a Victorian farmer cooperative that is now reclaiming control in NSW.”
7. Why should Australians buy Devondale fresh milk rather than Coles homebrand milk?
“That you’ll have to wait and see,” teases Poole. “Seriously, it’s up to us to place Devondale in the market carefully, with the right price, packaging and provenance and other benefits that will appeal to shoppers.”