A new big Aussie dairy co-op?

ReneDedoncker

Fonterra Australia’s managing director, René Dedoncker

“It’ll be months, not years,” says Fonterra Australia’s managing director, René Dedoncker when I ask him about plans to form a new big Australian dairy co-op.

Industry veterans will tell you the idea of Fonterra forming an Australian co-op is not new and seemed a real possibility after the demise of that other great milk co-op, Bonlac, in the early 2000s. So, why now?

“I think the time is right,” says René. “This is a value proposition at a time when the industry is fragile.”

“Fonterra Australia is also in a great position to reduce risk. We have learnt from our mistakes and have a stable, repeatable business model with a balanced customer and product mix. Confidence, if not trust, is running high.”

I cough a little nervously and ask René how he expects farmers would rate Fonterra in the trust stakes and whether that might be a problem.

“Trust may well be a stumbling block.” he concedes. “Farmers – even those who’ve been supplying us for many years – tell me it will take years to rebuild. Purely on trust, we could well be ranked quite low but we are working hard to regain that.”

“I can tell you that there is not a key decision made without the input of farmer voices.”

The consultation on the co-op idea will officially begin at the Bonlac Supply Company AGM next week and be discussed at farmer forums across the country.

If it gets a sufficiently warm welcome, the next stage in the process will be discussions about the form the co-op would take.

“We already have several different models in mind,” René says, “but at this stage we want to keep it simple and see whether there’s an appetite for this co-op.”

What Rene can say is that there won’t be a mandatory requirement for farmer suppliers to “share up”, matching share numbers to milk production.

“We need to make it attractive and give everyone an opportunity to participate. Farmers will also be able to supply Fonterra Australia without becoming shareholders,” he explains.

It’s also decided that the shares would be in the Australian operation only, rather than the global Fonterra organisation. The Australian co-op has the blessing of the board of directors but would not need to clear a Kiwi shareholder vote.

The plans towards forming a co-op has “paused” the progress of a replacement for the Bonlac Supply Agreement, René says. While that replacement has already been drafted, it won’t be made public until it’s clear it would suit any new co-op model.

It has done nothing, however, to dampen Fonterra’s Australian expansion plans. The processor has already committed to lifting its processing capacity by another half-a-billion litres over the next six months and will add another half-a-billion within 18 months.

While René stresses that the 3 billion litre target is in capacity rather than milk supply (allowing enough headroom for a bumper season), he says the processor is aiming for a milk supply of 2.6 to 2.7 billion litres within two years.

At the same time, Lino Saputo Jr is on record saying Warrnambool Cheese & Butter will win back the milk MG lost. And, of course, the main beneficiaries were Fonterra and WCB itself.

“What about Saputo?,” I ask.

“We’re running our own race,” says René. “We have incredible confidence in our business and they’re offering powerful competition that’s good for our industry.”

“It might be better to ask Saputo about us.”

The change has only just begun: Rabo

Buckle up. That’s the message threaded right through a report on Australia’s dairy supply chain by Rabobank‘s Michael Harvey released today.

While so many of us are aching for some stability, for things to just settle down a bit, the report crystallizes fears that change has only just begun.

Michael’s report cites three causes for continuing change:

  1. Down by 800 million litres in southern Australia, milk production is at its lowest in two decades
  2. Australia’s largest processor, MG, has “stumbled and remains under pressure”
  3. The lower price farmers are paid for milk has triggered a boom in stainless steel investment and aggressive recruitment

The scale of the shake up is huge

RaboProcShare

p. 2, Harvey M., (2017), The Australian Dairy Supply Chain

While Rabobank’s chart illustrates just how much milk MG has hemorrhaged, it also shows that MG continues to be a critical player in the whole industry’s fortunes. As does Fonterra, now more than ever.

Fonterra is abandoning the Bonlac Supply Agreement, which used the MG price as a guaranteed baseline, for something yet to be announced.

MG, the Rabobank report concludes, has suffered “structural damage” that will, if it can recover, take years to repair before the co-op can resume the role of price setter.

So, here is the kicker in Michael Harvey’s own words:

“The reality is that the old system of price discovery for raw milk has broken down and a new method of price discovery will need to emerge, meaning that, in the future, dairy farm operators will be operating in a more commercially oriented and flexible market for their milk.”
– p. 4, Harvey M., (2017), The Australian Dairy Supply Chain

Is it a warning? Perhaps. Change is often difficult but it brings fresh opportunities, too.

Competition will drive farmgate milk prices for a while
Rabobank notes that while milk supply has fallen by 800 million litres, enough new stainless steel is coming on line this year to process another 700 million litres, with more expansion planned. It expects competition to drive milk prices in the medium term.

Milk flowing beyond borders
According to the report, there is an increasing appetite for milk processors to spread supply risk beyond their traditional collection areas.

We’ve seen this locally, with Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, for example, recruiting milk in Gippsland.

A rethink of the current price system
Michael Harvey devotes a significant portion of the report considering the impact of the production decline on Australia’s status as a preferred supplier. “Alarm bells are ringing for international customers,” he writes.

In this context, Mr Harvey also discusses the tension between the need for flat milk supply versus the lowest cost of milk production – on one hand processors can’t manage a very “peaky” supply and, on the other, the discounting of Spring milk has forced up the cost of production for farmers, stifling growth.

Let’s just hope that out of this crisis comes a fresh start.

Planning for disaster while dodging a bullet

Daffodil
Today’s blossoming of the very first daffodil reminded me we’re on the cusp of Spring – our 12 weeks of make or break on the farm.

Only yesterday, a banker asked me how the outlook was on farm. Anxious is the answer.

The feed pinch
The big dry has sent grain futures soaring, signalling that we’re in for exorbitant grain prices by Christmas.

Meanwhile, it’s been very hard to grow grass and the dry subsoils provide little moisture in reserve for what the Bureau is predicting will be a drier-than-normal Spring.

While we’ve invested heavily in a small amount of irrigation infrastructure, the dam is still well below full and we have no access to the aquifer.

At the same time, high quality hay suitable for the milkers is in very short supply, so I’ve been trying to lock in feed this harvest before it becomes too tight to mention.

The money pinch
Most dairy products are either traded internationally in US dollars or sold to domestic customers at a rate linked to international commodity prices.

This means that as the Australian dollar rises against the US dollar, the value of our milk falls. And rise it has, reaching 80 cents for the first time in two years.

Green shoots bring hope
On the other side of the ledger, there’s been cause for hope this morning.

Despite the exchange rate fears, the processor we supply, Fonterra, lifted its price for milk from $5.30kgMS to $5.50kgMS (from roughly 40.5 cents per litre to about 42 cents).

Second, I found a heap of worms slithering across the track in a bid to avoid the saturated soil. Yes, saturated! For the first time this winter, we finally have soft top soils.

Better late than never. Let’s hope the rain keeps coming and we don’t need to feed the cows massive amounts of grain to get through another drought.

Worm

Playing games with our lives

GAMP

GAMP: Before MG in Gippsland

With just a couple of exceptions, the processors seem to have learned just one thing from the last year of chaos: loyalty is now a luxury item.

The jumble of opening prices, incentives, secret deals and long-term contracts with short-term prices shows that, by and large, we are in an era where it’s every man, woman and child for themselves.

It wasn’t always this way. Until recently, you could not buy loyalty.

Even though there were more lucrative options, most Australian dairy farmers chose to supply the last big co-op, Murray Goulburn. For generation after generation, we knew in our hearts that only a strong co-op, which put farmers first, should set the pace for the farmgate milk price.

Since the April/May debacle when farm gate milk prices crashed to disastrous levels, farmer loyalty has become gossamer thin. The main theme from Dairy Australia’s farmer survey reported in its June Situation & Outlook was that “Trust in processors has taken a knock”. Err, yes, just a little.

“In the past 12 months, 11% of respondents changed the processor they supply and a further 17% would like to change supplier – 9% are considering it and 8% would like to change but are unable to.”
“Farms with herds greater than 700 cows were most likely to have changed processor or to be considering a change.
“In general however, most farmers tend to be loyal to their processors historically and 61% have remained with one processor for the past 10 years.
“Milk price is predictably the primary reason for changing or considering changing processor, however 21% also expressed concerns with processor management and the treatment of farmers, 12% were concerned about the ‘clawback’ and 8% lack trust in their company and feel they have not been honest.”
– p. 5, Dairy Australia Situation & Outlook, June 2017

DA’s survey was conducted in February and March – well before MG opened first, very early. Everyone was watching. For years now, MG has set the benchmark milk price, pushing it as high as it could go in the spirit of a farmer-owned co-op.

This time was different.

MG’s price of $4.70 per kg of milk solids (about 36 cents per litre) was simply far, far too low. MG’s competitors needed milk and were willing to pay not just a little more but a lot more and farmers have been scrambling for the life boats in a bid to survive a third tough year in a row.

Meanwhile, other processors have been offering “loyalty” bonuses or locking farmers into long-term supply contracts without the long-term prices to match. It all flies in the face of the honour, transparency and simplicity the processors are apparently set to pledge under the Code of Conduct.

Today, MG has performed a minor miracle, lifting its opening price from the miserable $4.70 to $5.20 before the season has even begun. This 11 per cent increase puts the MG price close to breakeven for many of its suppliers.

It’s fantastic news.

Farming families across the country will breathe a little easier tonight and, for that, I am very grateful.

But, like the “forgiveness” of the MSSP, like Fonterra’s 40 cent payment, this about-face leaves me wondering why it was necessary to inflict so much pain and hardship on farmers in the first place.

Bitterness is never a becoming attribute but, with processors pulling one stunt after another seemingly without regard for the farmers stretched to their financial, physical and mental limits, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the faith.

Spreadsheets for brekky, lunch and dinner again

ForkLoRes

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.

NthVic

Source: Dairy Australia http://www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Markets-and-statistics/Production-and-sales/Latest-statistics.aspx

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.

 

Bonlac on keeping Fonterra honest

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Aubrey Pellett, deputy chairman, Bonlac Supply Company

Fonterra’s announcement on Wednesday had at least one enthusiastic endorsement. In a press release, the Bonlac Supply Company chairman, Tony Marwood, declared the announcement a “good news story”.

The Bonlac statement was significant because BSC is the organisation charged with representing the interests of farmers who supply Fonterra and ensuring that the Bonlac agreement is observed by the global processor.

The positivity of the BSC board towards an announcement that drew outrage from farmers left Milk Maid Marian wanting to know more about Bonlac’s rationale for its support.

A big thank you to BSC deputy chairman Aubrey Pellet for answering these questions on behalf of the board.

MMM: What does BSC do for farmer members?
AP: BSC undertakes a number of representative activities for Fonterra suppliers as well as the wider dairy industry, not limited to the following;
· Negotiate with Fonterra Australia, on behalf of our suppliers, on conditions of milk supply
· Develop the next generation of dairy industry leaders through the BSC Leadership Program and Nuffield scholarship funding
· Oversee the operation of BSC Fonterra Australia Supplier Forum which provides direct farmer feedback to BSC Board and Fonterra Australia
· Represent supplier’s interests with Fonterra Australia and work with Fonterra to develop initiatives to support farmers
· Actively participate in supplier meetings, field days, industry conferences, industry forums etc.
· Actively lobby to support Dairy Farmers – such as our formal submissions and representations made on the ACCC inquiry into the Australian Dairy Industry and the Senate inquiry into the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

MMM: How does the BSC consult with farmer members and how many supplier forums have been held following the May price cut?

AP: The BSC Board (the majority of who are Dairy Farmers) consults with suppliers (both as a collective Board and as individuals), and has many discussions both formal and informal held on a regular basis.

With regards to formal scheduled meetings, there are the supplier forums (chaired by BSC and usually 3 per year) and cluster meetings (chaired by Fonterra but attended by BSC Board members) where suppliers are consulted and able to voice their views.

MMM: Why are farmers who supply milk under the Bonlac Agreement not able to read the document? If it is “Commercial in Confidence”, why is that so and how can farmers be expected to be party to a document they cannot see?

AP:The Bonlac Supply Agreement is a confidential agreement that sets out the basis on which Fonterra Milk has appointed Bonlac as its agent for the purpose of acquiring and/or arranging for the collection of milk.

It is a key commercial agreement for Bonlac that governs a significant portion of commercial activities of Bonlac and the suppliers it represents. This kind of information / agreement is not ordinarily in the public domain, nor made available for public / competitor scrutiny.

MMM: The Fonterra supplier handbook says the Bonlac agreement means that suppliers can expect Fonterra to match or better MG’s price. How has that obligation been met for suppliers impacted by the 40 cent shortfall in 15/16 who have since begun to supply a different processor?

AP:

o The opportunity is there for those suppliers who have left since May 2015 to return to supply Fonterra – and they are welcome back.
o There are always significant differences between the final average milk price received by different farmers in different regions with different calving profiles. The cash (not milk price) received by farmers from MG in 2015/16 was $5.53 as noted in MG’s annual report. The final Fonterra Milk Price for the same season was $5.13.
o The Milk Price obligation under the MSAA is at a total supply level – not at an individual supplier level – and along with Fonterra, we do acknowledge that a small minority of farmers will be dissatisfied by the approach that has been taken here.
o We worked through many different scenarios in arriving at this decision – it was not practical nor possible to have an individual scenario for every supplier.
o At an overall level Fonterra has agreed to do the right thing and make up this 40c difference.
o BSC will monitor these payments, ensuring that at the end of 2017/18 a minimum of 40c has been paid out as an additional milk price to eligible suppliers

MMM: Does the Bonlac Agreement state the terms of repayment for any shortfalls?

AP: The scenarios that have played out over the last 12 months have been unprecedented in the dairy industry, so there is no formal process that must be followed in the Milk Supply Agency Agreement that governs the components of any repayment ‘shortfall’.

MMM: How will the BSC ensure that Fonterra pays a market price for milk next year (excluding the 40 cent payment)?

AP: BSC does not have a role in determining the final price that will be paid by Fonterra – that price will be determined by Fonterra Management and a large number of market and other factors. Please also see comments in question 9.

MMM: Did the BSC seek independent legal advice regarding Fonterra’s announcement?
AP: BSC has sought and referred to legal advice throughout the events of the last 12 months.

MMM: Would you please clarify whether independent legal opinion has been received on Fonterra’s most recent announcement?

AP: The response on legal advice in last 12 months includes the current announcement.

MMM: The Bonlac Agreement does not expire until 2019. Does BSC support its continuation?

AP: The continuation of the agreement will be assessed closer to that date.
It must be acknowledged that the agreement covers a large range of milk collection related topics, and much more than a benchmark to MG.

Whilst BSC does support the agreement continuing, that does not mean that BSC supports all the components of the current agreement, and BSC will actively consult and look to put forward amendments as appropriate at that time.

MMM: BSC wrote last year that a new pricing model would be announced early this year. When will farmers be informed of the changes and when will they be implemented?

AP: I believe this reference is in relation to Fonterra providing more timely and appropriate pricing indicators to suppliers and the wider market.

This process is still underway and is well progressed with Fonterra.

It must be noted that the early announcement by Fonterra of the indicative price range for next season is part of this new model of operation – with the early announcement designed to give additional time for suppliers to adjust and respond to the Milk Price being offered.

MMM NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: The final question referred to this statement below from Bonlac’s 2016 annual report, which refers to a new benchmark rather than a new pricing model.

BSCbenchmark

Fonterra answers 11 difficult questions about the BSC and that 40 cents

Email
All eyes turned to Fonterra Australia after Murray Goulburn (MG) scrapped its clawback just a couple of weeks ago. Fonterra has a legal agreement with supplier group, Bonlac, to match or better the dominant player’s price and MG’s “forgiveness” of the debt effectively raised the 15/16 payment to farmers.

It’s fair to say Fonterra’s response on Wednesday (see supplier email above) sparked outrage in many quarters and raised a host of fresh questions. I put some of those questions to Fonterra Australia’s milk supply manager, Matt Watt, and appreciate his answers below. Thank you, Matt.

MMM: Considering MG’s forgiveness of debt, what’s the 15/16 benchmark return?

MW: The benchmark price for 15/16 remains $4.80. The MSSP didn’t form part of that season’s milk price as it was a pre-payment on future year’s milk price. In other words MG was taking milk payments from future years to fund the gap of their step down. While MG has forgiven the clawback the debt now sits on MG’s balance sheet.

Unlike MG’s debt package, our support loan was optional and like a bank loan. Around 40 per cent of our suppliers took out the loan, and there was significant variation in the amount borrowed among the 40 per cent. To only forgive the loan would be inequitable for our total supply base.

MMM: What role did the Bonlac agreement play in Fonterra’s announcement of an extra 40 cents/kgMS?
MW: The spirit of the agreement played a role. However, the actual benchmark milk price was $4.80 and we delivered above that at $5.13.

MMM: Why are payments being made next season rather than now?
MW: Current suppliers have the option to take the 40c payment as an advance this season.  Nevertheless, the actual payments are calculated using next season’s production to ensure suppliers can get the full advantage of this additional payment and are not limited it to this season’s production (which may have been affected by the 15/16 price reduction).

MMM: Doesn’t the Bonlac agreement mean that suppliers can expect Fonterra to match or better MG’s price? Why has Fonterra not met that obligation for all suppliers impacted by the 40 cent shortfall in 15/16 and how many affected farmers are being excluded?

MW: The Bonlac Agreement only relates to the benchmark price and, as explained earlier, the MSSP payment does not relate to the benchmark price. In the 2015/2016 season, Fonterra’s final farmgate milk price was $5.13 vs MG’s final farmgate milk price of $4.80. Also, this current season Fonterra is paying $5.20 v MG’s $4.95.

Although not legally obliged, we are making the additional 40c payment to our suppliers as it’s the right thing to do.

All Fonterra farmers affected by the 15/16 price drop are being offered the opportunity to receive this additional payment, including existing, retired and returning farmers. We’re in the process of contacting all the farmers that have left us.

MMM: Under the proposed voluntary “Code of Conduct “, the 40 cents/kgMS payment that is designed to compensate farmers for the 15/16 season shortfall could be considered a breach. Will Fonterra sign and observe the terms of the Code?

MW: I don’t want to comment on the code implications of our announcement as it is in draft.  However, in our view, there would be no breach as this payment relates to the 17/18 season, not the 15/16 season.

MMM: Why will farmers who were not suppliers during 15/16 receive the 40 cent payment?
MW: Our additional payment is on next season milk. Our first priority is existing and returning farmers. With improved farm margins on the back of this announcement, we are hopeful that the vast majority of our milk needs will be covered by growth from our existing suppliers and returning farmers. Once we understand our milk for next year, we will then consider new supply where it will add value to our whole milk pool and contribute to our ability to pay a better milk price.

MMM: If eligible farmers apply for the “advance”, will they be free to spend that money as they see fit? If not, why not?
MW: Suppliers who do not have a support loan are free to spend the money as they see fit. Suppliers can manage their cashflow by electing to take the additional payment as a monthly payment.

MMM: Under the Bonlac agreement, how soon must Fonterra make up any shortfall and who is eligible?
MW: Although not legally obliged, we are making this additional payment as we think it’s the right thing to do and we have worked with BSC in relation to this proposal. We’re obliged to meet the price at the end of each season, and have done so since the agreement has been in place. For five of the last seven seasons, we’ve paid a farmgate milk price exceeding MG’s.

MMM: Will Fonterra commit to matching the market price in 17/18?
MW: Fonterra will be market competitive in 2017/18 – our asset footprint, product mix and the current global market means we can be confident of our ability to be market competitive.

MMM: Why is the Bonlac agreement not open to scrutiny by farmers who supply Fonterra under its terms?
MW: It is a commercial in confidence agreement; however a general description of the BSC Agreement is set out in our Milk Supply Handbook.

MMM: Apart from monetary incentives, what will Fonterra do to rebuild trust and confidence – not just for its suppliers but the wider Australian dairy industry?

MW: We are absolutely committed to rebuild trust and confidence. This starts with providing clear and timely price signals, as we did in our announcement yesterday. We are working on a number of other initiatives in that respect. On top of that, we will work with our farmers and industry on the finalisation of the code, on supporting farmers and the communities around them through our grass roots program and on innovation in helping to leverage technology to enable more informed and quick decisions on farm.