Category Archives: Murray Goulburn

What it will take to get this farmer growing

Confidence.jpg

The last two years – a drought and the infamous dairy debacle – have taken their toll and not just on my hip pocket. Unless there’s change, my cheque book is likely to grow cobwebs for up to a decade. Sounds melodramatic? Not really.

My reasoning is this: first, we need to recover the equity lost over the last two years.

Second, we need to catch up on the maintenance we couldn’t afford to do over the last two years.

Third, I want at least another $100,000 in equity as extra protection. Interest rates won’t always be this low and, when they rise, another shock of this magnitude could be devastating rather than debilitating.

It all adds up to roughly $300,000 in profit to make up before I have an appetite to invest in any project that takes more than a year to break even. And that will take me years and years to accomplish.

If other farmers have the same attitude, we will continue to see Australian milk production stagnate.

The problem with this is that the processors have been investing in hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new stainless steel that requires enough milk flow to make it efficient. Time and time again, they have said growth is the only way to return the maximum price to farmers.

Do we have the start of a vicious circle? I hope not to hear the processors blaming a low farm gate price on inadequate utilisation of bloated stainless steel created by a low farm gate milk price.

Making me even more risk averse is the lack of definitive action to prevent this happening all over again.

Both the big processors, MG and Fonterra, have pledged to be more transparent and that’s a good first shuffle. I say “first shuffle” because to call it a good first step would be overstating its importance. We need a game-changer.

MG has commissioned a price review that will consider farm gate price models from around the world. At the same time, the Bonlac Supply Company, which represents farmers supplying Fonterra, also announced it would present alternatives early this year. Will these be the game changers we need?

I suspect not. The game changer we need is one where risk is shared along the supply chain rather than simply shifted onto farmers.

After all, while the current system is a legacy of an industry dominated by strong co-operatives, it’s also a marvellous “magic pudding” business model for corporate processors.

Consider this recent ACCC submission by Warrnambool Cheese & Butter‘s new owners, Saputo:

In February, Saputo announced a quarterly profit of C$197.4 million. I’m not sure why it feels it is appropriate to make Australian farmers responsible for its inability to negotiate a better energy contract. But it does because it can.

It serves as a timely reminder that the push for farmer prosperity has to come from farmers.

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Filed under Farm, Fonterra, milk price, Murray Goulburn, Warrnambool Cheese and Butter

Helou tells the Senate he’s a hero

While he might not have used the word “hero” exactly, former Murray Goulburn managing director Gary Helou was in complete denial when he fronted the Senate inquiry today.

Helou told senators he had the right plan, a plan that had delivered for two-and-a-half years. “The strategy was working and we were getting the right results,” he railed. Only one “unforeseeable” thing had derailed MG’s plans. That thing?

Not the global dairy commodity prices that had been falling steadily for month after month or the inattention of the board to the reportedly growing alarm of senior management. It was a Chinese regulatory change regarding cross-border trade via e-commerce. I gather this is code for selling milk powder and UHT milk on the equivalent of eBay into China.

As Gary explained it, he and the board were aware of the falling global commodity prices but selling these dairy foods – which he described as “our biggest sellers” – had been mitigating those losses.

The Chinese seemed to be tightening up on that, err, “cross-border e-commerce” and MG made two ASX announcements in response to media reports, the first on April 12, followed by this update on April 18.

mgcasxapril18

Both announcements concluded that the regulation did “not have a material impact on MG’s business”. Totally in contradiction to everything Gary Helou said today.

Just four days later, MG entered a trading halt. When it emerged from that trading halt on April 27, here’s what the announcement said about those big sellers:

asxmgcapril27

MG was still saying the Chinese announcement had no material impact on MG’s business. So, where does the truth lie?

With MG facing at least one class action, the Senate inquiry and under investigation by both the ACCC and ASIC, farmers have been hopeful of finding answers to the debacle that cost some their livelihoods.

But asked twice by senators whether he had been questioned by authorities investigating if MG had misled investors, Gary Helou said “no”. Both times he paused for several seconds before answering that one very simple question and, incredibly, each time it was an unequivocal “no”.

This is one witness to the Senate Inquiry who raised more questions than were answered.

United Dairy Farmers of Victoria president, Adam Jenkins summed up the sense of disbelief that followed perfectly. If it was possible, the ACCC farmer consultation forums that roll into town over the next couple of weeks just got that bit more important to attend.

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The MG fallout for Fonterra

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The trump card held by Fonterra milk recruiters has long been a promise to match or better the price offered by Victoria’s biggest processor. What could possibly go wrong?

Indeed, the so-called “Bonlac Milk Supply Agency Agreement” has worked well for a long time. But it all unraveled last season when the biggest processor, Murray Goulburn Co-operative, started to behave at odds with the deteriorating global price.

Aunty MG, which had always worn a demure twin set and behaved with utter decorum, pawned the family silver, took off in a turbo-charged red convertible driven at break-neck speed by the sweet-talking new boy in town while tossing money at admirers like confetti. Fonterra was dragged along, screaming for Aunty to slow the hell down but nonetheless tethered to the rear bumper.

The wreckage of the crash has been messy for all involved. The Bonlac Supply Company chairman, Tony Marwood, writes in the BSC’s annual report that:

“…clearly we cannot have a benchmark mechanism in place against a processor that is under performing and also facing significant headwinds and an uncertain future.”

Ouch!

BSC and Fonterra, he wrote, are working on a new benchmark that it will reveal early next year.

In the meantime, a group of suppliers has written to Fonterra Australia, saying the processor has failed to honour its agreement to match MG’s price. The dispute revolves around the question of whether MG’s closing milk price was $5.53 or just $4.80 per kilogram of milk solids (kgMS).

Confusingly, as you might remember, MG dropped its price last April but then added money back in the form of a “Milk Supply Support Package”. This MSSP, MG stressed, was not a loan to individual suppliers but a “socialised debt” that would come off the milk price. Since then, MG has paused the MSSP in a bid to stem milk losses. In a nutshell, it means that MG announced an official closing milk price of $4.80 per kilogram of but actually paid “an average cash price in FY16 of $5.53 per kgms“with the MSSP included.

I asked Fonterra Australia’s Matthew Watt to explain his company’s position.

MMM: Excluding any loans or the $2.50 offset paid this financial year for milk supplied last financial year, what was Fonterra’s closing price?
MW: Fonterra’s average milk price for the 2016 financial year was ultimately $5.13 per kgMS, which was 33 cents higher than the benchmark price set by MG.

MMM: What was paid to Murray Goulburn suppliers last financial year?
MW: Murray Goulburn has clearly stated in its public announcements and 2016 Annual Report that its final farmgate milk price for the 2016 financial year is $4.80kgMS. The advance to suppliers under Murray Goulburn’s Milk Supply Support Package does not form part of the benchmark price, and neither does any Murray Goulburn dividend payment.

MMM: How is the term “bundled return” in section 10.1 of the Fonterra Australia Milk Supply Handbook defined?
MW: The Bundled return (following the payment of BSC shares out in 2014) is defined as the average farmgate price paid by the largest processor in Victoria

MMM: MG has suspended the repayment of the MSSP. If MG does not require suppliers to repay the MSSP, doesn’t that mean last year’s price was effectively the “cash price” of $5.53 and how will Fonterra respond if the MSSP is not recouped?
MW: Fonterra has an obligation under the BSC contract to match MG’s benchmark milk price. MG has clearly stated that its final farm gate milk price for FY2016 was $4.80. Based on MG’s announcements, the MSSP operates independently from the FY2016 milk price.  We are not in a position to speculate what MG may do in the future with regards to its MSSP repayment schedule.

Thank you very much, Matt, for answering Milk Maid Marian’s questions!

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Could this have been the wake-up call Aussie dairy needed?

bulllores

When the two biggest processors of Australia’s milk, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, squandered the goodwill of farmers earlier this year, there was a sense they could do as they wished. They made the rules and broke them, too.

One executive told me there was no risk of supply loss following the drastic price cuts, saying, “After all, where would they (farmer suppliers) go?”.

How things have changed. Both the big processors have watched milk supply evaporate and, with the dawning realisation that something had to be done to avoid the death spiral outlined here and detailed by MG’s own advisors, Grant Samuel, both have responded.

After suspending the MSSP while reducing the forecast close by about the same amount a week earlier, MG made amends with a step-up the day before its AGM.

In his AGM address, MG chairman Phil Tracy acknowledged farmers’ pain and offered an apology of sorts.

“While as a Board, we did what we could with the information that we had at the time, we know that the outcomes of that period have been devastating for suppliers and for that we are deeply sorry.” – Phil Tracy, MG Chairman

Like MG, Fonterra Australia has announced it is reviewing the way farmers are paid for milk in order to avoid a repeat of the May debacle. Farmers whose milk production peaked in May and June were initially singled out for a thumping, causing many to sell off cows, only for Fonterra to back-track days later and spread the pain of its price cut more evenly among suppliers.

Despite poaching 200 million litres of milk from MG, Fonterra Australia’s supply remained fragile, due to the tricky season, the low milk price and the damage done in May to autumn-calving regions. Hours after MG announced its step-up, Fonterra came out with its own, much larger (and incredibly welcome), price increase.

The size of the step-up challenged the oft-held belief that Fonterra only pays the price it needs to in order to prevent supply loss to MG. With profitability restored, perhaps Fonterra has indeed extended its co-operative spirit to this side of the Tasman. On the other hand, Fonterra’s announcement provided a hint that perhaps it was essential to fill under-utilised stainless steel:

“The last six months have been challenging for all of you, and we know that spring is critical to optimise production.” – Matt Watt, Fonterra Australia

No matter what the motivation, it’s enormously heartening to see the two biggest processors act and act so positively. Maybe this is the wake-up call Australian dairy had to have. It might even help to rekindle the traditional sense of partnership between farmer and factory that had been on the wane for so long.

What’s certain is that farmers – and their supply of milk – can no longer be taken for granted. Loyalties have been stretched or broken and farmers who have now experienced how easy and rewarding it can be to shift their supply may well be tempted to do so again.

In return, expect processors to lock in a broader range of “desirable” supply with more special deals and contracts. Be careful what you sign. I’m tipping the unfair contract law that came into force quietly this weekend will be more important for dairy farmers than legislators could have imagined.

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Raining on MG’s parade: the shrinking milk pool more serious than the big wet

bigwet

Here’s something new: wet weather in parts of Victoria now means farmers must be paid less for their milk.

MG came out with another adjustment to the milk price on Thursday. In a nutshell, the MSSP (aka the “Clawback”) has been put on ice. At the same time, the best price MG expects to be able to offer farmers this season (called the “closing price”) has been revised down by a little bit more than the “clawback of the clawback” returned to farmers’ pockets.

I must admit that while I was expecting the clawback of the clawback, I wasn’t expecting MG to revise down the forecast closing price because analysts are cautiously optimistic that the global market for milk is recovering. It’s supposed to be all up from here.

The problem is MG forecasts its milk intake to be 20 per cent lower this season and, after stuffing warehouses full of surplus product last year, it now doesn’t have enough product to sell. Conceding losing 350 million litres to retirements and competitors, MG blames the remainder of the loss on wet weather. The reality is that the weather is just one part of the equation. The main reason production is down is man-made and does not rate a mention by MG: the low milk price.

Low milk prices mean less milk production
The low milk price hits production in two important ways:

  1. Cows are sold, leaving fewer in the herd producing less milk per farm
  2. Cows are fed less grain and produce less milk per cow

Fewer cows in the dairy
The grim reality is that most Victorian dairy cows are worth more at the saleyards than in the dairy this year. Farmers culled their herds during last year’s drought and, now, many struggling to pay the bills have culled hard again.

Less milk-producing feed
The cows that remain in the herd are being fed less grain than last year, simply because it’s not viable. Here in Gippsland, we are paying $310 per tonne for supplementary feed. The rule of thumb is that a kilogram of grain returns a kilogram of extra milk.

Right now, my own farm is getting 26.9 cents per litre during Spring (while most MG suppliers will be getting even less), so we lose roughly 4 cents per litre with every extra kilo of grain. We just can’t afford to produce more milk beyond what’s needed to service our overheads and keep the cows healthy.

It’s not actually that wet for MG – at least, not everywhere
The other mystifying statement about the claim that wet weather is the cause of the loss of production is that, actually, large areas of MG’s supply area aren’t experiencing record wet conditions and some areas are having a bumper season.

wetsoilmoisture

Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Yes, the south-west of the state, South Australia and parts of Tasmania are having a terribly wet season but Gippsland and the north are not, if you are to believe the Bureau of Meteorology.

Dairy Australia figures from last year show the production of each area:

Financial Year 2015/16
RDP Litres %
Dairy SA 514,039,216 5%
DairyTas 882,965,394 9%
DairyNSW 792,948,581 8%
GippsDairy 2,006,004,931 21%
Murray Dairy 2,267,951,005 24%
Sub-tropical Dairy 550,148,921 6%
Western Dairy 387,147,057 4%
WestVic 2,139,492,819 22%
Grand Total 9,540,697,924 100%

Of these, it’s only fair to remove DairyNSW, Sub-tropical Dairy and Western Dairy because these areas are either not collected by MG or have special pricing not affected by the announcement.

If you assume all of Dairy SA, DairyTas and WestVic are hit by the wet but GippsDairy and Murray Dairy are okay, the picture is not nearly so dire. In fact, the source of 55% of the litres in MG’s supply area isn’t too wet at all!

wetnotwet

So, yes, the wet is a problem – an especially big problem for farmers in the south-west who have my sympathies – but unlikely to be anywhere near as big a problem as last year’s drought, which affected pretty much the entire collection area.

If anything, the processor most affected by the weather may well be Warrnambool Cheese & Butter and it increased its milk price to $5.00 per kgMS in late September. The MG milk price (without the now suspended MSSP) is now $4.60 per kgMS and the forecast is for $4.70 by the end of the season. Ouch.

The bottom line
It all boils down to this: low milk prices lead to lower milk production – even in a reasonable season – and make it even harder for farmers to cope with difficult seasons.
What Thursday’s announcement from MG reveals is that farmers now face a vicious cycle, given the expected loss of 20 per cent of the co-op’s milk supply since last season.

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The challenge for MG’s board now is to stop another closely-related vicious cycle from spiralling out of control, as it did for its once-great competitor co-op, Bonlac. That would be a dreadful outcome for our entire industry.

mgviciouscycle

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The big opportunity for MG, the last big co-op

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To many dairy farmers, Murray Goulburn is much more than a milk processor. It’s their co-op. I know, it was my co-op too. For the record, our farm had always been a dairy co-op member for generations, even before MG was formed, until just before the partial float.

But sometimes, that zeal can backfire. It’s counterproductive to say farmers can leave the co-op without penalty and then openly consider placing special conditions on returnees. Zealots also look foolish, or callous, publicly arguing black is white in an attempt to airbrush the hurt caused to so many since April. Nor is it okay for them to harass anyone – as I was this weekend in private messages – who simply points out inconvenient facts. Aggression is not the path towards conversion.

As MG director-elect Craig Dwyer pointed out on Twitter this morning, the fish rots from the head.

craigdtweet

And this is where Murray Goulburn is at a crossroads. Until the April trading halt, it had been travelling at what the then MD Gary Helou loved to call “break-neck speed” towards its vision of becoming a “first choice dairy foods company”. The co-operative ethos had faded into the background.

Over the last few years, MG’s culture has moved away from that of a real co-op towards a company. “Each for all and all for each” once graced the cover of MG’s annual report but in its submission to the Senate inquiry published just days ago, MG revealed there were many more “special deals” than many had suspected (see below).

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Excerpt from MG Senate Inquiry into the Dairy Industry submission (p. 10)

The zealots often lament the treatment of MG by the media and commentators like me. The reality is that this scrutiny offers the co-op a massive opportunity. Everyone is listening and the story MG could tell is compelling. It is the last big Australian dairy co-op (with apologies to Queensland’s Norco) and many – even those who have fled MG – still cherish the co-operative spirit. We just need to know that MG does, too.

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Why I welcomed Four Corners to our dairy

I’m looking forward to watching Four Corners tonight with all the enthusiasm of a patient awaiting the lancing of a boil. Will it be fun? No. Will it be good for me? I guess so.

It’s almost four months since Murray Goulburn called a trading halt, followed by the infamous “clawbacks” of both MG and Fonterra that rocked the dairy community.

In a state of confusion and panic, farmers called out for help. Ordinary Australians did what they could, ditching cheap unbranded milk in a show of solidarity with farmers that continues to hearten.

Four months on, panic has given way to a sense of aimlessness and loss. Helou and Tracy’s vision had offered a shining path towards security and prosperity but now Gary the Great has vanished and nobody has filled the role of white knight. Leadership is lacking at the time we need it most.

We farmers have a fleeting once-in-a-lifetime chance to fix things. Politicians want to know how they can help but we don’t seem to be able to articulate a coherent answer other than to cry for something, anything, to dull the pain.

Meanwhile, there’s a puerile optimism amongst some elites, reckoning that every casualty improves the prospects of the survivors. It’s a sentiment that disgusts me and simply doesn’t stack up.

Floods of milk generated by the powerhouses of Europe, NZ and the USA sink or float the export market – not the farm next door. We’ve already lost thousands of Aussie dairy farmers since deregulation. More of the same won’t solve our problems.

The first step towards a cure is to work out exactly what ails us and, at the moment, all we’re doing is bandaiding a festering sore. If there’s anybody who can sniff out and lance a boil, it’s Four Corners.

That’s why we welcomed Deb Whitmont and her team to our farm. Sure, I’ll be cringing on the couch but Four Corners’ Milked Dry might just reveal the bitter pill we need to swallow.

 

 

 

 

 

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