Tag Archives: cooperative

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.

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.

 

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

cowcockiesbook

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).

specialdeals

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 the system is broken

The interaction between processors and farmers is bizarre to outsiders. The way it works is this:

Out of a handful of processors in the district, you ask one to collect your milk, although, if you’re unlucky and live somewhere a little remote, you might not actually have a choice at all. We’ll call this processor “your” processor for convenience.

Whichever processor you choose, they tell you what they will pay for your milk on July 1 – sometimes after July 1. This “opening price” is meant to be the lowest anticipated price, the one you can budget on. The only other time the price has fallen below the opening price in the last couple of decades was during the global financial crisis and even then we had a couple of months’ notice.

The price generally goes up along the way from there, though, unless you are one of the very few farmers who gets a fixed price, nothing is actually guaranteed after that.

It all depends on the exchange rate, global commodity prices, the performance of the biggest processor in the market and the success of “your” processor’s particular product mix.

What’s the performance of the biggest processor in the market and the success of your processor’s particular product mix got to do with the amount farmers are paid, you ask? Everything.

And it’s a system that used to work brilliantly. Once upon a time – not too long ago for those sporting the odd grey hair – there were not one but two major dairy co-operatives in the southern states: Bonlac and Murray Goulburn.

Every cent of profit the two co-operatives earned was returned to their farmer-shareholders and, because their whole reason for being was to maximise profits for their farmers, they effectively set a base for the farm-gate milk price.

Neither co-op could get too lazy or arrogant because there was strong competition from the other. Then, disaster struck, as reported by The Age:

“Crucially, Bonlac is processing only 1.6 billion litres of milk. Over the past 10 years, its share of Victorian milk production has declined from about 40 per cent in 1992 to 16 per cent in 2002.”

“Bonlac’s milk plants are running at only 75 per cent of manufacturing capacity. Particularly underused are the factories at Darnum in West Gippsland and Stanhope in northern Victoria.

“Debt, the result of an ambitious expansion into value-adding branded products in the 1990s, is still crippling the company, despite asset sales creating paper profits in the last couple of years, and the repayment of $185 million of debt.”

Now, in the midst of an ambitious expansion into value-adding branded products on the back of a partial listing, MG is in turmoil. Its MD and CFO have resigned and the milk price has collapsed, triggering ASIC and ACCC investigations, at least one class action and a share price meltdown.

Bonlac is long gone and, in the eyes of many farmers, MG has lost the title of reliable pacemaker. The system is broken.

It’s no longer acceptable for dairy leaders to tell farmers to concentrate on their farm businesses and blindly follow their calls for growth. It’s time we actively forged a new era for Australian dairying.

 

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“Bring on the cows” demands a new routine

“Bring on the cows” trumpets The Australian, headlining a story about MG Co-op managing director, Gary Helou. In response to rumours that the co-op might purchase a large Tasmanian dairy farm, Mr Helou reportedly says:

“We are not farmers; MG is a global dairy food processing and milk company, and we will not be buying farms directly; that is not our business,” Helou says adamantly.

“The only way to get extra cows and milk is to up the farm gate price enough that farmers will want to invest (in more cows) themselves. So that’s what I have set out to do, maximise the farm gate price and reduce the cost of processing and the supply chain and then efficient production will follow.”

Here’s the problem: MG is not a global dairy food processing and milk company. It is a co-operative of Australian dairy farmers who are members because they expect MG to, first and foremost, maximise their profitability. Not by investing in a processor (they could just buy ASX shares if that was what it was all about) but by looking after farmers directly.

They don’t just supply MG, it’s not just their MG, farmers ARE MG.

Am I being hopelessly idealistic? I don’t think so. This focus on being a processor has flowed through to the co-operative’s milk price system.

The final milk price only tells half the story. The quoted “average weighted” milk price is skewed to favour farms with flat production curves (mirroring those of the processor) at the cost of farms whose milk supply matches the natural ebb and flow of cow and pasture. For the vast majority of Australian dairy farmers, the way our co-operative pays us is at odds with efficient milk production.

MG must remember what being a cooperative really means before its farmers will be ready to “bring on the cows”.

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MG makes its move

I used to think of our co-op as a bit like the ABC: your favourite aunty. Comfortable, dowdy, trustworthy and a little quirky.

But Aunty MG has undergone a transformation.

Since it acquired a new CEO, Gary Helou, in October 2011, Murray Goulburn has embarked on lancing $100 million of costs, opened up in Dubai, restructured the way farmers are paid for milk, revamped its retail trading store network, developed assistance packages for the next generation of farmers and forged the spectacular Coles fresh milk deal. At least, these are the “headline acts” that come to mind.

Now, MG is making a $420 million bid for its rival, Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, gazumping Bega Cheese and Canadian dairy giant, Saputo.

According to MG, (if the bid is successful) the new Murray Goulburn Warrnambool:

“Creates a new 100% Australian farmer-controlled dairy food company with over 3,000 supplier shareholders delivering more than 4 billion litres of milk to nine processing sites annually. The business will be positioned for strong growth in both domestic and international dairy markets with forecast revenues in financial year 2014 of $3.2 billion including export sales of $1.4 billion to over 60 countries.”

This, Gary Helou wrote in a letter to MG’s farmer shareholders yesterday, would bring the coop, “…the necessary scale, market reach and competitive strength to capture the benefits of the historic growth opportunity resulting from the consumer affluence of developing Asian economies.”

MG’s triple-jump

The bid is in, it’s the most lucrative on offer and it’s Australian, yes, but there are three serious hurdles for MG:

1. A bidding war

What will Saputo and Bega do next? WCB traded higher yesterday, closing at $7.89, a sign that markets believe MG’s $7.50 isn’t enough to win the bidding war.

2. Shareholder seduction

WCB rejected a takeover offer from MG in 2010. At the time, there was quite a bit of anti-MG sentiment. It’ll be interesting to see if the reinvention of Aunty and a bigger bucket of cash will make a difference.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Mr Helou said yesterday that farmers supplying WCB needed to consider the future of the Australian dairy industry when deciding on the take-over bid.

“For farmers generally, they are at a fork in the road today.”

“If they sell out to a private company, that they have no control over … they will be spectators.”

“What we are putting on the table is an offer for them to take a stake in every step in the value chain.”

“It’s a fundamental, philosophical different point of view.”

3. The competition watchdog

Back in 2010, the ACCC was loathe to allow MG to acquire WCB. As reported in the SMH at the time:

THE competition regulator says its preliminary view is to oppose Murray Goulburn’s proposed acquisition of Warrnambool Cheese & Butter on the grounds it would cut competition in some markets for raw milk.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said yesterday it was concerned the proposed deal “would substantially lessen competition for the acquisition of raw milk from farmers in the relevant markets within South Australia and Victoria”.

“The potential effects in the relevant markets include a significant reduction in farm-gate prices paid to farmers for raw milk; and reduced competition in the offer of non-price terms such as finance, field advice services and discounted hardware and grain supplies.”

The irony of the ACCC’s 2010 statement is that Murray Goulburn’s mission, as a 100% farmer-owned co-operative, is precisely to return the maximum price to farmers — something to which the listed Bega Cheese nor the privately owned Canadian giant Saputo cannot lay claim.

I hope it takes a broader perspective this time. A serious exporter battling subsidies and tariffs around the world, MG needs scale so that its processing can be as efficient as its farmers. The Australian government does not afford our dairy farmers the protections enjoyed by most of our competitors. The least it can do is allow us to grow.

UPDATE: See this article and extended AFR interview with MG CEO Gary Helou: http://www.afr.com/p/national/the_battle_for_warrnambool_kxxm78XXLgfsAJ6y7ARaVJ

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