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.

Opening prices so far

This post will be updated as announcements are made and can be confirmed. Wherever possible, there is a link to the processors’ full announcements if you click on their names below:
MG $4.70, revised to $5.20
Bega $5.50
WCB $5.50
Burra $5.45-$5.65 if farmers lock into three years of unknown pricing or $5.05 – 5.25 without commitment.
Fonterra $5.30 plus bonus 40 cents
Parmalat $5.70

NBtweet

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.

ACCC takes Helou, Hingle and MG to court but lets Fonterra off the hook

eleanor-roosevelt

Pic credit: The Solution News at TSNnews.com

Today, the ACCC announced that it is taking Murray Goulburn to the Federal Court for unconscionable conduct. It will also pursue MG’s former MD, Gary Helou, and CFO, Brad Hingle.

That’s a bit of a relief after Gary Helou told the Senate Inquiry in February that he had not been questioned by investigators. If there’s a villain in the whole dairy disaster we can all agree on, it is Gary Helou. I, for one, am glad he will have his day in court.

I am also relieved the ACCC has shown the wisdom of Job when dealing with MG. As the ACCC said in its statement:

“The ACCC has decided not to seek a pecuniary penalty against Murray Goulburn because, as a co-operative, any penalty imposed could directly impact on the affected farmers.”

On the other hand, many farmers will be disappointed the ACCC has chosen not to take any action against Fonterra. The watchdog explained that decision in a quote from ACCC chairman, Rod Sims:

“A major consideration for the ACCC in deciding not to take action was that Fonterra was more transparent about the risks and potential for a reduction in the farmgate milk price from quite early in the season,” Mr Sims said.

Rod Sims is right. Fonterra did say, more than once and from early on in the season, that the milk price was unsustainably high. Why, I was one of the farmers upset with Fonterra big banana, Theo Spierings, for broadcasting this via the newspapers eight months before the price collapse. That much, I do understand and, with the benefit of hindsight, Fonterra was doing the right thing.

Theo

Fonterra was in an impossible position. While, technically, Fonterra could have cut its price earlier and, therefore, less savagely, the reality was that it had little choice. It would have haemorrhaged supply to MG and, if the co-op had delivered on its promises, the Bonlac Supply Agreement would have forced Fonterra to match MG’s price – no matter how unrealistic – anyway.

What it does not excuse, however, is the way Fonterra responded once MG announced its price cut.

At first, Fonterra sat on its hands, apparently caught by surprise like the rest of us. Then announced a slashing of the milk price from $5.60 to $1.91kg MS – the equivalent to 14 or 15 cents per litre. It gave no notice – actually, it revised the price for May and June on May 5. There was no time for farmers to plan and we were all faced with a frenzy of late-night nightmarish decision making.

On top of that, the Fonterra response failed to consider the devastating effect it would have on farmers with autumn-calving herds. Fonterra moved the goalposts a week later to spread the pain more evenly across its farmer suppliers but, for those who’d been most responsive, it was too late. Cows had been culled and the decision to send milkers to market is absolutely final.

Even now, farmers who chose not to accept the low-interest loans Fonterra offered to partially fill the void are still paying a mandatory levy to fund the scheme.

The weeks of insanity in May and the pain it continues to wreak on farmers cost Fonterra Australia loyalty that took it decades to build, as Australian GM of Milk Supply, Matt Watt acknowledged in this excerpt of an email to suppliers just minutes ago:

  • “You will have seen today that the ACCC released its findings into their investigation into MG and Fonterra over last season’s step down. The ACCC advised that they have decided not to take action against Fonterra.”

  • “I know the last 12 months have been incredibly challenging for you and your families, your communities and our industry.

  • “We’ve listened to you, and we’ve learned a lot over the past year. What you’ve told us has informed the steps we’re taking to ensure a stronger dairy industry.

  • “As you know, we’re working with BSC Board on greater transparency on price and as mentioned earlier I look forward to sharing more on that at the upcoming cluster meetings. We’re also fully engaged in the Dairy Industry Code of Conduct.

  • “We understand it will take time to rebuild confidence, and this is something we are firmly committed to.”

Neither of the two big Australian processors covered themselves in glory a year ago.  At least we now have some prospect of justice, if not recompense, for all the farmers affected by the reckless behaviour of the man at MG’s helm that sent so many to the rocks.

It’s a sign – a good sign – that the dairy community will chart a better course and keep a closer watch in the years to come.

Milk maid says thank you to her heroes: you!

cropped-family

A heartfelt thank you from our family to yours

There may have been a few villains in the dairy disaster but a year on from the day Murray Goulburn made its infamous announcement, there are many more heroes.

Millions of them.

I remember my first trip to Melbourne after the story of our plight reached the city. A business acquaintance greeted me with: “Getting tricky buying a litre of milk these days, Marian.”. Lee had been to three shops before he could find branded milk.

Three shops. For a bottle of milk.

I remember my neighbours calling in to see if I really was alright after The Project went to air while I welled up with tears beside my husband. The tears spoke of the sense of despair, shock and downright frustration that being helpless in the face of careless callousness.

But not any more.

The sense of helplessness has passed, thanks to people like Lee and those, like Waleed Aly, who made our stories heard. Ordinary people took the extraordinary step of doing something Coles and Woolies never thought they would. They showed they cared with their wallets.

And that clear, genuine care drove action.

We farmers have been gifted something precious, a once in a lifetime chance to change things for the better. Thanks to all the ordinary people making an extraordinary statement with the simple, everyday purchase of milk, we have the attention of the nation’s watchdogs and the ear of its leaders. If we are clever enough, we can make sure this never happens again.

Now that’s something worth remembering on a day we’d otherwise rather forget. Thank you.

 

Light at the end of the tunnel: Fonterra

Well, as you saw in the previous post, I’m looking for light at the end of the tunnel (other than an oncoming train!) for Australian dairy farmers like me. In that post, ADF’s Terry Richardson took up the offer to present a vision. Today, Fonterra Australia’s new(ish) managing director, René Dedoncker, presents his view. My brief was pretty open: give farmers a reason for optimism without going into all the intricacies of Fonterra’s strategic direction.

I’m very grateful to René for sending Milk Maid Marian not just the written response below but a video too. Both are worth a look because they’re a bit different.

There’s no question that there have been challenges in recent seasons. What happened last season was a reminder that we operate as part of a global market – we can reap the rewards, but it also means we share in the risk. We as companies have a responsibility to tell it like it is, so that our farmers are prepared – positioned for prosperity when conditions are good and able to weather the storm when they aren’t.

However despite the challenges there are still plenty of opportunities for Australian dairy – it’s about knowing how to capitalise on those opportunities. Today, around 406 billion litres of dairy are consumed globally every year. By 2020 it will be 465 billion litres. That’s a 59 billion litre difference – around seven times the size of Australia’s current milk pool.

We know that countries that don’t have enough milk will look to the countries that have a surplus. Australia is one of those countries. But simply selling our surplus supply in the global marketplace will only ever achieve commodity returns. It will not be enough to win back confidence on the farm.

We need to be providers of premium dairy products that are aligned with specific consumer needs and life stages, and we have to make sure we produce and deliver those products as efficiently as possible.

Two years ago Fonterra embarked on a mission to change the way we operate to enable us to better capture that demand. Overseas consumers want Australian cheese. We have a reputation for quality and excellence. Across Asia demand for cheese is growing. Mozzarella demand in China is growing at around 30 per cent each year.

In China, and across Asia, pizza is a social food – they eat it with friends and with their hands rather than a knife and fork. That’s why it’s important that as a dairy company we create a cheese that enhances that social experience.

Understanding what our customers want is crucial to our long term success as an industry. The reason there is such high demand for Fonterra’s cheese is because we’ve been immersed in the Chinese market for 25 years.

We know what Chinese consumers want. For example, we know how they eat their pizza, and how they want it to taste. Chinese consumers want their food to look as good as it tastes – they want that slightly brown crust on melted mozzarella, they want those stretchy cheese strings as they pick up a slice. Now, Fonterra cheese tops around half of the pizzas in China.

As companies, we need to leverage Australia’s reputation for high-quality dairy to make the most of the opportunities before us. The way we do that at Fonterra is through innovation – innovation in farming, in manufacturing, and in product development.

It’s why we’re investing in modern and efficient manufacturing; using technology to make dairy foods that tastes and performs the way our customers want it to. We have the technical know-how to deliver what they want – products developed with the end user in mind.

When it comes to nutritionals, the fundamentals in China remain incredibly strong, despite recent dips in demand. Here are just a few figures to consider:

  • The Chinese economy has been growing for 26 consecutive years, with economic growth still relatively strong at 6.8 per cent per year.
  • Over 54 per cent of Chinese people live in cities; by 2030 it’s expected that over 1 billion people will live in Chinese cities.
  • In 2000, just four per cent of Chinese families were considered middle class. By 2020, 76 per cent will be deemed middle class
  • China’s birth rate is climbing after the relaxation of the one-child policy – in a country with only four weeks of maternity leave many Chinese mums rely on infant formula to feed their babies after they return to work.
  • The next 12 months will be tough, as authorities seek to get greater control through regulation over the supply chain. However, the reputation of Australian dairy and the quality associated with that in China is invaluable.

We take a base commodity product and leverage everything that we have – high quality farm practices, best in class manufacturing and a point of difference on country of source, and make it into a higher-value product that is highly-desired in China.

That’s why we are continuing to back and develop the nutritional partnerships that we have so that when we get to more stable settings in China, we can take the opportunity to flourish.

There is huge potential for dairy looking ahead – not just in China, or Asia, but across the developing world. If we as processors work smarter, developing products that meet the needs of our customers and fulfilling that demand, our entire industry will benefit through greater investment, more jobs, and most importantly, a higher farmgate milk price.

NFU explains the British milk price system

A couple of posts earlier, Andrew Hoggard explained the Kiwi milk pricing system and now, I’m delighted to thank Siân Davies, chief dairy advisor of the NFU for this explanation of the way UK dairy farmers are paid.

As the big processors review the way Australian farmers are paid, it’s an important discussion we can’t afford to ignore. Thank you, Siân, for being so generous!

sian-davies

The Brits just hate simplicity!

Nothing’s ever simple in the dairy world is it? Explaining milk pricing in the UK in a blog is going to be tough but I’ll give it a go.

The UK dairy market is pretty unique in that half the milk produced on farm every year is processed into fresh liquid milk – we have a huge population and around 98% of them drink milk. A quarter of the milk produced is processed into cheese, mainly cheddar with the remaining quarter used for other dairy products – butter, yoghurt, powder and cream etc.

We’re also not self-sufficient in dairy products and our dairy trade deficit is abysmal – last year we exported €1.1billion worth of dairy products but imported more than €3billion. This mainly comes from the EU (especially Ireland) as cheese or milk powder.

These are just some facts to try to explain our milk pricing models which are pretty unique to us.

Over 100 UK milk buyers dominated by Arla and Muller
All dairy farmers have a milk contract to supply a milk buyer, of which there are probably over a 100 – these being a mix of co-ops, plcs and privately-owned companies.

The main ones are Arla Foods co-operative with just over 3,000 members here in the UK (of their 15,000 EU owners) and Muller UK with around 2000 suppliers. Both these buyers produce a variety of dairy products but their main focus is supplying liquid milk and branded products to UK retailers and food service.

How the milk price is set
Arla has a common EU milk price – with all their conventional milk suppliers receiving the same milk price regardless of which EU country they are in. Of late the £:€ exchange rate has meant the UK milk price has suffered and not risen as fast as its € counterpart. Arla’s pricing model is pretty simple:

Monthly sales – staff costs – reinvestment (agreed at outset by the Arla board) = milk price.

The price is announced monthly a few days before the start of the month.

Most other UK milk buyers practice buyers discretion which means they set the milk price according to where they see the market. There is no discussion or negotiation with supplying farmers. Muller has historically kept its suppliers happy by paying a little more than Arla.

Another practice commonly used by milk buyers is that of basket pricing – where processors base their farmgate milk price on an average of a basket of other milk buyers’ milk prices. This is now normally based on Muller and Arla, and moves a month after the two main buyers. It can have no resemblance to the market in which the actual milk buyer functions.

A more recent addition to the milk price portfolio is that of cost of production+. This is pretty unique to the UK and came into being when milk volumes were short and retailers wanted to guarantee a steady supply of fresh liquid milk.

A number of our most “caring” retailers started paying a milk price guaranteed to be over the cost of production for farmers who supplied them with fresh liquid milk. Just over a 1000 farmers are now on this type of model (it doesn’t fit into the Arla co-op model so Arla shares the increased price amongst all its EU members) but these farmers would also be required to jump through additional hoops, for example, on animal welfare, carbon footprinting and engagement with the retailer.

Last year, with the market crash and after the removal of quotas a number of milk buyers brought in A and B pricing, where farmers were paid a milk price (A price) for their core volume (set by the milk buyer) and then a B price for anything above that A volume.

When milk was plentiful, the B price was well below the A price and reflected spot milk price or below as milk buyers tried to encourage farmers to reduce production. It follows that as milk became short that the B price would race upwards, overtaking the A price. Our most calculating milk buyers removed the A and B pricing policy when this occurred.

UK dairy deregulation
Dairy farmers in the UK has historically no need to worry about better understanding their milk buyer or market dynamics as we had a Milk Marketing Board that collected every litre of milk produced and paid every farmer the same price.This stifled innovation and competition although many farmers wish it was still in place.

The MMB was a producer-run product marketing board established by statute in 1933 to control milk production and distribution in the United Kingdom. It functioned as buyer of last resort in the British milk market, thereby guaranteeing a minimum price for milk producers. The British milk market was deregulated in 1994 following the Agriculture Act 1993.

Many milk contracts haven’t changed much since 1994, with farmers having to exclusively sell milk to one buyer on an evergreen (everlasting) contract with long notice periods. The contracts also include an annex which is the pricing schedule laying out payments (bonuses and penalties) for % butterfat, % protein, somatic cell counts, bactoscan and more recently thermodurics.

Most dairy farmers also have to be members of our farm assurance scheme, Red Tractor, and are inspected independently once every 18 months to check compliance with the RT standards for animal welfare, environmental care and milk quality.

Price risk management
A more recent addition to the milk price stable here in the UK is fixed price, fixed term, fixed volume options. Milk buyers allow farmers to lock in a certain volume of milk at a set price to help manage price volatility. The milk buyer has normally backed up the volume on a fixed deal with a customer or sold the product forward on futures markets.

Transparency missing
One thing that is missing in the UK is price transparency within the dairy supply chain. Farmers know what price they are offered by their milk buyer and we all know what price milk is priced at on the retail shelf (too low!) but what happens in between?

Our farmer levy body provides a great deal of market intelligence on dairy including market indicators such as AMPE (actual milk price equivalent) and MCVE (milk for cheese price equivalent) and more recently a futures milk price indicator, FMPE. This information is available for anyone free of charge but we all do follow the GDT auction religiously to see what the market sentiment is.

Haves and have-nots of UK dairy
The variance in milk prices paid in the UK over the last two years has been as large as anyone can remember. At one time farmers producing milk for cheddar were receiving 14ppl whilst at the same time a farmer supplying a retailer with liquid milk was receiving 32ppl.

Prices have come closer of late as the global dairy market improved and farm inputs reduced in price but this led to a complete divide within the UK dairy farming fraternity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, simply those on a supermarket contract and those who weren’t.

Looking forward
We accept that milk pricing will become more volatile in future, what with Trump in the US and Brexit looming for us. Our farmers are calling out for new milk pricing options that help manage risk for the whole supply chain and we are at last seeing some movement from buyers.  We believe the dairy market can work better for all the players within it – from farmer, to processor, to retailer and ultimately the consumer.