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.

 

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.

Imagine if dairy farmers were paid like Qld cane growers

QSL

Most Australian dairy farmers have just one customer for our milk – the processor. It is the processor who adds value to the raw milk, who markets it and, importantly, it is the processor who decides how much the farmer will be paid.

I don’t need to tell you how vulnerable this leaves us.

If the processor makes a mistake or suffers any form of economic headwind – whether it be increased gas prices or decreased whole milk powder prices – it is free to simply pass that problem on to the farmer.

We accept this state of affairs because we feel there is little choice. We can’t store milk on the farm for more than two days and it’s illegal to sell unprocessed milk directly.

Cane growers have a lot in common with dairy farmers

Cane growers are in much the same boat. Like us, they cannot store their produce for long (it needs to be processed within eight hours of being harvested) and can’t sell it directly. But rather than having a handful of processors nearby – as most (though certainly not all) dairy farmers do – many are only in a workable distance from just one miller.

Cane growers use millers as service providers, not just customers

Unlike us, though, Queensland cane growers are determined to row their own boat.

As Queensland Sugar Limited’s Cathy Kelly told Milk Maid Marian, how much Queensland cane growers are paid for their crop is based on the sugar produced from their cane, rather than the cane itself.

“This payment arrangement is detailed in the Cane Supply Agreements growers hold with their local sugar mill, with the miller generally taking one-third of the sugar produced from each grower’s cane as a processing fee, leaving the grower to make the pricing decisions for, and receive payment on, the other two-thirds of the sugar,” Cathy says.

“So, while the growers may not own the sugar produced by their local mill, they are deemed to have an ‘economic interest’ in it.  It is this – the Grower’s Economic Interest in sugar (GEI Sugar) – that is at the heart of the recent sugar marketing issue.”

Cane growers can market sugar collectively
While the sugar is processed by private millers, the two-thirds of the refined sugar in which growers have an economic interest isn’t necessarily marketed by the millers.

After numerous government investigations at a state and federal level (sound familiar?), the Queensland Parliament introduced Marketing Choice legislation in December 2015, forcing Queensland sugar millers to provide their growers with a choice of marketer. It’s been a success, despite the best efforts of the biggest miller of Australian sugar cane, Singaporean-based Wilmar, to stymie arrangements as recently as last week.

Growers have access to their own not-for-profit public company, Queensland Sugar Limited (QSL), which is owned by Queensland growers and millers and started life back in 1923 as the Sugar Board, selling sugar from Queensland farmers under a single desk arrangement.

Today QSL, Cathy Kelly explains, provides four major areas of service:

Pricing: QSL is a member of the global raw sugar marketplace, the #ICE 11 exchange, based in New York. QSL uses its membership to conduct pricing on behalf of Queensland growers and millers, covering margin calls and associated fees so that its members can lock in sugar prices up to three years in advance.  QSL also operates a sophisticated pooling system, where growers can elect to have QSL manage and price GEI sugar on their behalf.

Financing: QSL uses its access to low-cost finance to provide year-round cash flow to members through a monthly proportional payment system called Advances. Under this system, QSL borrows approximately $150m each year to start paying members as soon as they start delivering sugar to the state’s terminals, even though that sugar may not be sold until up to a year later – hence the term Advance payment. As QSL is a not-for-profit, it also returns any net corporate profits to its members at the end of the financial year via the Advances system.

Marketing: QSL coordinates the physical sale of sugar, aiming to maximise returns to its members by optimising sales timing and customer premiums. They are highly regarded by their long-term clients in the Asian market, who pay strong premiums for Queensland’s reliable, high-quality sugar, last year coordinating the successful receipt of $1.9 billion in customer payments.

Logistics: QSL operates Queensland’s six Bulk Sugar Terminals on a cost-recovery basis, (i.e QSL doesn’t charge a margin), providing safe and efficient storage, handling and shipping of raw sugar as well as overseeing a strong quality management program. QSL’s delivery record is world-class, with over 98% of shipments delivered on time and in full last financial year.

While our circumstances might be a little different and it’s not been without its challenges, the sugar marketing model shows that there are other alternatives to the status quo for dairy.

Do we care whether Australia makes less milk?

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!

HARVEY_Michael_41961R

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’.