How processors decide the opening price for our milk

Piggy Bank

With the anticipation of shoppers pressed against the doors of a Boxing Day sale, farmers look forward to the “opening price” for our milk every season. This year, the hype was bigger than ever.

Last season’s prices were high enough that many farmers have recovered from the year before, commentators continue to gush about the future of dairy and processors are on the hustings looking to poach supply. On the other hand, global dairy commodity prices are tumbling and the Australian dollar remains stubbornly high. Uncertain times.

The first of the major processors to announce its (edit: this post applies to the south eastern Australian states only) opening price was Fonterra, the giant NZ co-operative, at $5.80 per kilogram of milk solids, only to be trumped hours later by Australian co-op Murray Goulburn at $6.00. The two forecast closing prices were in the range of $6.10 or $6.15 to $6.30, making this year’s buffer between the start of season price and the forecast close one of the narrowest ever, suggesting an increased risk of a historically rare and confidence-busting mid-season price “step down”.

Opening prices are a little contentious, with United Dairyfarmers of Victoria president Tyran Jones, labelling them “misleading“. I invited the two big processors to answer some questions about how the opening prices are set. Thank you to Matthew Watt of Fonterra and Robert Poole of Murray Goulburn for their explanations.

 

Q1. How do you arrive at an opening price?

A: Matthew Watt, Fonterra:

We look at multiple information sources. The most important one of these is the market intelligence we get from the Fonterra Global insights team. I expect that others in the market take a lead from our and Fonterra NZ pricing to leverage this information as well. Other information sources include GDT futures, Fonterra Treasury (FX), Rabo Bank.

  • We extrapolate these information sources into a number of different commodity and currency scenarios (this season we ran in excess of 15 pricing futures through our model)
  • Model looks at weighted returns based on forecast milk flows.
  • Sensitivities are completed at different commodity prices and currency
  • Following this, we establish the most likely estimate of closing price – this becomes the forecast close range.
  • We then compare the forecast close to our lower price scenarios & calculate an opening price that is paying what we can to farmers but also ensure there is a level of protection from any market/forecast downside.

A: Robert Poole, MG:
At a high level:

Milk Price = Total Revenue less Total Non-milk Costs less Profit. As stated below the 2014/14 milk pool grew to $1.7 billion up from approximately $1.2billion in 2012/13.

An extensive budgeting process occurs across the business. We estimate milk intake volumes and composition, determine product mix, budget sales revenue (sales and other), budget company-wide costs, determine profit requirements (to manage balance sheet and funding needs, and dividends) which provides for a milk price. Throughout this process we make certain assumptions such as pricing, volumes, product mix, foreign exchange and sales channels for revenues and savings initiatives, efficiencies, wages and working capital for company costs.

Improvements in the budget position as the year progresses are usually passed through as step-ups.

 

Q2. How have the margins between opening price and forecast close changed since 2008?

A: Matthew Watt, Fonterra:
The traditional rule of thumb was that opening price was 85% of forecast closing although published forecast closing prices are a relatively recent addition. This year our forecast opening is 94% of midpoint of forecast close range. To actually track this is difficult because published forecast closing prices are a relatively recent introduction.

A: Robert Poole, MG:
Yes, these are slightly different each year. In determining the amount of buffer required, allowance is made for those areas where the co-operative is exposed to volatility; upwards, downward  and other adverse conditions or potential risks.  Generally MG has an opening price between 90 and 95% of its initial forecast.

 

Q3. Given the uncertainty of the exchange rate and falling commodity prices, is there an increased risk of a step down this year?

A: Matthew Watt, Fonterra:
As the variance between opening and forecast close narrows, there are an increased number of potential scenarios that provide a number that is on or lower than opening price.

  • Our current forecasts suggest that commodities will improve which is factored into our forecast close price. However, these are subject to global economic conditions and global production – both can move quickly and can impact commodity prices either way
  • The exchange rate has been anticipated to fall for some time but it remains high and a number of forecasts suggest that this could increase. As a rule of thumb, every 1 cent move in the exchange rate (across a full year) will have a 5 c/kg MS impact on milk price
  • At this stage of the season, we have limited volumed that is priced and sold. This means that, any moves in the commodities or exchange rate have a large impact on the actual, final milk price. As we move through the season, we get more priced and sold, meaning that movements that happen later in the season have a lower impact on the farmgate milk price.

A: Robert Poole, MG:
The difference between the opening milk price and the budgeted milk price allows for adverse variances to budget and a step down in price is historically very unlikely.

 

 Q4. What percentage of your Australian suppliers receive a price that is equal to or above the published opening price?
A: Matthew Watt, Fonterra:
All of our published pricing is based on best quality milk. The greater the level of penalty/incentive built into the pricing construct and the relative achievability of the premium quality standard will impact the difference between average quality and premium quality.

On our new, simpler pricing construct, between 25 & 50% of our farms will be at or above average quoted price, (assuming premium quality). Given we also have a transition payment in place from old pricing system to new, the number that will actually receive more than the published number will be over 50%.

60% of our suppliers are within +/- 0.15 cents per kg MS of average price, based on premium quality. Naturally, the poorer the individual farms actual quality that is delivered, the further they get from average price due to penalties incurred.

A: Robert Poole, MG:
Approximately 50% of milk supply is above the average and 50% below – hence the weighted average.  The majority of suppliers are within 2 cents per litre of the average.

[NOTE from MMM: I did follow up with Robert to clarify his answer in terms of the percentage of farms but the information was not available for the blog.]

 

Q5. Aside from the opening price, what do you think are the top three reasons farmers are attracted to supply your business?

A: Matthew Watt, Fonterra:

  • As a broader comment on price, I would like to think that farmers look past opening price as a reason for choosing a processer, particularly on opening average quoted numbers. On the price aspect, whilst opening is an important indicative number, what is really important is how that pricing construct suits an individual farm and, what the actual as opposed to projected or opening price performance is.
  • However, the three key reasons that we think farmers value are
    1. Leveraging our Global Leadership for Local Benefit – this means giving the best market information to our farmers to help better decision making on farm and, as a key extension to this, introducing fixed base milk price to enable farmers to better manage price risk. The other aspect of this is the multiple product streams, brands, domestic and global markets that we are active in. This provides access to the best and emerging opportunities in the market as well as a balanced group of customers and products which serves to reduce risk.
    2. Supporting Profitable Farmers – Profitability in farming is fundamental to industry success and our success if we are going to have long term, secure milk supply. We clearly don’t control all of the profitability factors. However, there are some that we do and some we can influence. These include simplifying our pricing structure. A critical aspect of this was ensuring we were aligning the value that we could extract from the value chain into  a clear construct, enabling suppliers to farm profitably to their set of circumstances and available resources. We be believe it is now better understood, reduces risk to farm business profitability and enables better decisions around optimising margin to be made by our farmers. It also includes our support crew work, where we assist where we can with specific opportunities within business to increase bottom lines – this year we have identified well over $1M of profit that has been generated by specific farmers through this program.
    3. Partners in Asset creation – this means getting to a stage of sustainable profitability and then leveraging that for future growth. Again, our fixed base milk price program plays an important role in helping to provide the certainty and confidence required for a farmer to make an investment decision to growth. We are also leveraging our support crew team to identify opportunities to support the growth of our farmers, where it makes sense for them. The support can come in many ways – technical, helping prepare information for banks, direct finance assistance and the like.

A: Robert Poole, MG:

Our suppliers are attracted to MG for a number of reasons. If I had to limit these to the top three they would be:

  • The strong understanding that whilst opening price is very important that having a Co-op that has the objective of growing the pool of money available to farmers. For example in 2013/14 we have grown the pool paid to farmers from $1.2 billion to approximately $1.7 billion.
  • A desire to supply the last Australian farm owned dairy Co-op, controlling the milk supply process from end to end and passing benefits to farmers.
  • Stability – MG has a proven performance, reliability and track record of successfully running a large and complex dairy company for 64 years and we have a clear strategy to improve business performance
  • Service and support

 

7 thoughts on “How processors decide the opening price for our milk

  1. Marian, I think Norco would bristle at Poole’s statement that MG are the last Australian farm owned dairy co-operative. Perhaps there is room for new co-ops over the years as farmers recover from the destabilisation of deregulation. New co-ops may not need to own facilities, but could be just supply co-ops that direct their milk into a range of markets to suit their needs and supply curves. Very good article.

  2. Thanks very much for pointing that out, Mike. You are right: Norco is a growing co-op that has certainly made its mark in the north eastern states. I should qualify that this story is about the southern (Vic, Tas and SA) opening price.

  3. Really informative thanks Marian.

    A couple of questions:
    1. What is happening with contracts going forward for a longer period of time? Can you lock in 3 to 5 years forward? If not why not? Given the above answers from each company the processes they use could easily be done over longer timeframes.

    2. Why do you need an opening and closing price? Why not just have one contracted price with normal +/- for variations in quality etc?

    3. (this might be really dumb sorry if it is) Going completely the other way to Q2: If processors are worried about price changes over time, why not pay a weekly floating price? Far more transparent than opening and closing prices?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Ian.

      Most processors operating in the traditionally export-dominated south-eastern states start with a conservative opening price and then offer “step-up” payments (better prices with back-pay) as the season progresses and the value of the milk has been proven on the market.

      I am not a guru in this sphere but I think the rationale for it is that, this way, the very best price can be passed on to farmers. There is no need for the co-operative (I’m referring to MG here, which is widely regarded as the pace-setter), to hold back margin as a buffer any longer than a season. The export market is volatile and also affected by the exchange rate, so there is a lot of uncertainty about where the price will be in three to five years. No-one really knows.

      Having said that, Fonterra has this year introduced a “risk management product” that allows farmers to lock in pricing for a percentage of their milk and at least one of the more domestically-focused private processors is offering a floor price for a three-year contract. It may become more prevalent in the future.

      Contracts are common in the domestic-oriented markets (such as northern NSW), where demand and price are more predictable.

      I think a weekly floating price would be resisted by farmers, who value the ability to budget based on an opening price.

      • The process is repeated regularly each year and is highly predictable under current marketing arrangements for farmers
        Processors carefully calculate their expenses including plans for maintenance and expansion..
        They then assess current feed prices, availability of fodder and water supplies for irrigation and factor in long term weather predictions.
        They then determine the minimum price that they believe they can get away without sending every supplier to the wall all the time not allowing any margin over feed costs for farm maintenance, repairs, farm development or debt reduction.
        This is careful formula that has seen continued decline in family farm numbers and National production fall below 9 Billion litres and falling
        Last year 272 farms in Victoria ceased to supply milk. I wonder what this years figure will be?
        Still not a bad way of grooming the industry for eventual take over by your corporate buddies.
        Let those that can develop the larger properties and weed out the smaller competition and then manipulate the market at a later date for eventual takeover and profit taking..

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