The first opening milk price announcement for the new season has been made. And it’s spreadsheet time again for farmers and processors alike.
Why? Because Murray Goulburn has come in at $4.70 kgMS – the equivalent of about 36 cents per litre.
Farmers milked dry will lead to empty stainless
Very few Victorian dairy farmers can produce milk at that price. The most recent industry figures – during the 15/16 drought – put the average cost of production at $5.72 (see below). The 14/15 Dairy Farm Monitor report showed $5.36 and 13/14’s figure was $5.42.
So, yes, the seasons and the cost of inputs like grain affect the cost of production but this opening milk price is simply not enough and my heart goes out to every MG farmer wondering how to make ends meet.
Farmers will need to cut costs to the bone (again) to survive. How? Well, like the year we’ve just had, it’ll be every little thing possible, right down to insurance but there is one obvious variable cost to consider: stockfeed.
As you can see from the table above, “Purchased feed and agistment” amounted to a whopping 59 per cent of variable costs. Granted, prices were high that year but feed costs always are the biggest, fastest and first lever farmers pull when forced to bring the money train to an emergency stop.
At the same time, the value of cows sent to market is 29 per cent up on the five-year average.
Any farmer working on her spreadsheets will find a very powerful case to sell cows and buy as little grain and hay as she dares. In other words, make less milk.
Empty stainless is not profitable for processors
Just three years ago, the media was dubbing milk “white gold“. China’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for our milk drew breathless news reports and excited investors hot off the back of the mining boom.
Even the well established processors spent millions on stainless steel and now they have to fill it.
For example, Fonterra increased the capacity of its Stanhope cheese factory in a $120 million rebuild and will need a lot more milk from Northern Victoria, which has suffered a massive 18.4% fall in production year to date.
While the $4.70 opening price will have milk recruiters’ phones ringing hot, Fonterra and its rivals cannot assume that skimming milk from an ailing MG at a small premium will suffice. They will need to offer a sustainable milk price to assure supply over the lifetime of their investments.
Because, unlike gleaming multi-million-dollar processing machinery, cows and the farming families who tend them cannot be simply switched off and back on again.
If the co-op cannot manage a viable milk price, competition should
Traditionally, Murray Goulburn Co-op has been the pacemaker. It set the benchmark price that others had to match or better.
Now that the co-op is struggling to keep up with the pace, will the other processors take the opportunity to milk farmers dry or will competition and the need to fill expensive stainless save the day?
It’s a nervous wait.