Could Australia be running out of milk? Dairy identity Darryl Cardona told the senate inquiry that we could be importing milk in two years. according to media reports. Wondering if this really could be possible and what difference it would make, I turned to Rabobank senior dairy analyst, Michael Harvey, for insight and am really grateful for his guest post below. Thanks Michael!
Michael Harvey, Rabobank
The Australian dairy industry is staring down the barrel of one of its largest annual falls in milk production and would follow a 2% decline last season. This season has begun with three consecutive months of double-digit falls and is forecast by commentators (including Rabobank) to finish the season down between 7-10%. One of the country’s worst droughts in history was the catalyst for a contraction in supply of 8% back in 2002/03 – a clear indication of how difficult it is right now.
The collapse in milk production is not surprising given the challenges being endured on-farm. Some producers are exiting the industry and the producers who remain are making strategic decision to quickly bring down their breakeven levels through reducing herds and cutting costs. Just to make matters worse, seasonal conditions present challenges for the second consecutive season (but for complete opposite reasons). Some dairying regions are faring better with seasonal conditions and less global market impact on milk prices – the steepest declines in production are from across the southern export regions.
Losing supply is risky for processors
So, what are the implications for the industry beyond the farmgate when facing a collapse in milk supply? For processors, losing a large volume of milk supply is risky business.
A loss of milk can have a material impact on profitability. This is through reduced efficiencies and higher overhead costs associated with running processing plants at less-than-optimal rates. The financial impact will depending on how much milk is lost, where from, and what the manufacturing footprint is to be able to spread the impact.
As has been well publicised, there is active recruiting of milk supply across southern Australia leaving Murray Goulburn the most exposed processor. For a processor the size of Murray Goulburn, a short-term loss of milk supply can be managed. However, losing a large quantity of milk in a rising price environment is not ideal. Furthermore, a more permanent loss of milk supply may require a review and resize of its manufacturing footprint (existing and planned) to meet the new supply realities.
Will Australia remain self-sufficient for milk?
Looking more widely, given the scope of the reduction this season, concerns are being raised at the ability of Australia to remain self-sufficient in milk and dairy. Entering this season, Australia was a net exporter of dairy and sold around 3.5 billion litres of milk (in liquid milk equivalents) into the global market.
But Australia is actively engaged in global trade and is an open economy. In the same year, Australia imported over 1 billion litres (in liquid milk equivalent) of dairy products and ingredients. A large portion of this was either cheese or butter for a use across retail, industrial and foodservice. Australia also imports ingredients that are in short supply locally. Examples include whey, casein and lactose for production of nutritional powders.
For most dairy processors, a drop in supply will mean an immediate reduction in exports because the domestic market delivers higher and more stable returns and supply is tied to contracts. If Australia’s milk supply falls 10% this season that would equate to a loss of over 1 billion litres in just two seasons – a worrying trend for the entire industry.
Long-term a continued fall would trigger a spike in imports of more cheese, butter and ingredients to meet shortfalls and cover the loss of milk as processors focus on utilising local milk in the most profitable streams. But Australia would need to lose a lot more milk before needing to import liquid milk from New Zealand to meet the local consumer market for fresh dairy products.
What the future holds
So what can we expect moving forward? Firstly, better seasonal conditions over the remainder of the season would help to stem the loss of milk. Secondly, there are positive signs in global markets which have seen some improvement in farm-gate returns. Rabobank is confident of a sustained price recovery which will flow back to the farm gate. While it might be too late to have a more material impact of farmer margins this season, 2017/18 is shaping up well and should see a return to profitability on-farm. This would go a long way in stopping further bleeding of milk supply.
There is a risk for the whole of industry that Australia’s milk pool will remain stagnant or shrink further. Collectively the industry needs to re-ignite profitable milk supply growth. Australia needs at least 1% growth in milk production each year just to meet growing, albeit modestly, domestic market requirements.
Incentivising milk supply long-term to maximise help existing and planned processing capacity is more demanding. Restoring confidence and appetite for investment at the farm gate, which history shows for Australia, is an element difficult to attain and will require a sustained period of farmer profitability.
Without more milk supply, Australia will become less export focused, reducing its commitment to fast-growing global dairy markets, and potentially importing more ‘milk’.