The blueprint for NSW dairy

A week or two ago on Twitter, CEO of NSW dairy body Dairy Connect Mike Logan made an intriguing reference to a “blueprint for NSW dairy”. There’s only a limited amount you can learn from the 140 characters of a tweet, so I invited Mike to elaborate on Milk Maid Marian and here’s what he had to say:

Mike Logan, Dairy Connect CEO

Mike Logan, Dairy Connect CEO

In the NSW dairy industry the issue is that the value chain is not adding value at the farm gate. Since deregulation the farmers have descended from being strategic partners in the value chain, to an input that must be minimised.

Perhaps this is similar around the rest of Australia – I am not qualified to say. However, it is easy to assume that the dairy model in NSW is flawed as we watch our cousins across the ditch (dutch) grow their businesses, convert sheepmeat farms to dairy and build new kitchens. (The ‘New Kitchen Meter’ is a reasonable measure of success in agriculture.)

It is also easy for the NSW dairy industry to look at the New Zealand dairy industry and suggest we should emulate their model of ‘one big co-operative’. Without doubt that is the best model in the world at the moment. I call it the United Soviet Socialist Republic of Dairy (USSRD) and Barnaby Joyce says that Fonterra is a Maori word meaning ‘single desk’.

As much as we would like to, we shouldn’t emulate their model.

Firstly, because we can’t. The legislation required would make the current budget look easy. Between Clive Palmer and David Leyonhjelm it would be a nightmare.

Secondly, it is because we need to think about the next model after New Zealand. What is better than the USSRD?

Our current model of the value chain in NSW dairy seems to look a bit like this:
CurrentNSWdairymodel
Sort of messy eh?

The real problem with that value chain is that the farmer is held a long way from the representative of the consumer – otherwise known as the retailer. There are lots of ticket clippers, gatekeepers and a few value adders in the chain. There is not sufficient transparency and doubtful equity. The last person to make any money is the farmer.

So who is making the money?

Well, certainly the retailer. Here in Australia we have two of the three most profitable supermarkets in the world (Woolworths then Walmart then Coles/Wesfarmers).

Also the banks. The four most profitable banks in the Western world are right here. I needn’t name them. There are more profitable banks in China and Russia.

The distribution and transport sector is quite profitable. Linfox is not going out backwards.

Oddly, the processing sector in dairy is not making that much money. They are making more than the farm sector, but not an inordinate amount more. They only have about 25% of the capital invested when compared to the farm sector but they are mostly in control of the milk, its destiny and its value. They are the gatekeepers. The profit of the processors precedes the profit of the farmers.

So, what would a better model look like in NSW?

We suggest a value chain that is circular. We could call it a ‘value cycle’;

ValueCycle
The most important part of the value cycle is that the farmers and the retailers are side by side. The needs and values of the farmers and the supermarkets align. They align because the farmers have a secure supply of a high quality product and the supermarkets need a secure supply of a high quality product. Both want transparency and equity.

The first time I saw the value cycle work in NSW dairy was with the Woolworths Farmers’ Own brand and the group of seven dairy farmers in the Manning. The farmers were told by their processor that they couldn’t get any more money from the supermarkets for their fresh milk. They were told how tough it is dealing with the supermarkets. To their credit, the farmers took the challenge and decided to find out how tough it is to deal with the supermarkets.

The processor was half right. It is tough to deal with the supermarkets, but there was more money available. Both the supermarket and the farmers got what they needed because their values aligned. The system is transparent and equitable.

If that is right here in Australia, is it right in the export market?

Yes it is. Along with Norco and the logistics company Peloris Global Sourcing, the NSW dairy industry facilitated by Dairy Connect has developed contacts in the retail sector in China for the sale of fresh milk. Again, the milk is worth more with a direct deal with the consumers. The model does work.

It is easy to scoff at the volumes for fresh milk to China, I will tell you that they are small but they are invaluable.

If we can deliver albeit small volumes of fresh milk into the fastest growing dairy consumer market in the world at a profit by developing direct relationships with the supermarket sector in China, then what is next?

Can we develop those relationships to deliver other NSW dairy products without having to enter the export commodity circus that is mostly controlled by the USSRD?

Of course we can. The NSW dairy industry is actively seeking investment and partnerships with the Chinese retail sector to access the infant formula market. Again, the processors are right, it is tough. The farmers in the Manning too are right; it will bring value back to the farm gate.

Has the MG co-op fed Aussie dairy farmers to the wolves?

If $1 milk is unsustainable, how is the Coles deal locking in pricing with Murray Goulburn a good thing? Good question. Has MG made a giant mistake? Will it mean a mass exodus by NSW dairy farmers and will the big co-op do its socks on the deal, taking the hopes of dairy farmers down, down, down with it? Blair Speedy of The Australian certainly seems to think so.

I decided to ask some rather blunt questions of two men in the know: independent dairy analyst, Jon Hauser of Xcheque and Murray Goulburn big-wig and general manager shareholder relations, Robert Poole.

1. How can MG make a profit supplying fresh milk to Coles if Lion could not?
Robert Poole refused to comment on Lion’s circumstances but said the co-op’s new factories would be “purpose-built, state of the art and the most efficient milk processing plants in Australia”.

“We will make a good return supplying Coles and will have the capacity to supply other customers in time, too, making even higher returns.”

Jon Hauser goes further. “I can see how 10 cents per litre in costs can readily be taken out of the chain,” he says. “There is a view in the dairy community that milk should be sold for more than a dollar per litre when it’s being sold cheaper than that right now in the USA and the United Kingdom. The local processors have been retaining much more of the milk dollar than international processors.”

2. What risk is there to the $120 million of farmers’ funds that will be spent on the new factories?
Poole says quite flatly that the cost of the factories is well and truly covered by the 10-year Coles contract: “We have total security. There will be no cross-subsidisation of this investment – it will be fully funded by the agreement with Coles.”.

3. Why hasn’t MG sold fresh milk into supermarkets before?
“Historically, we would have had to submit a tender for milk supply. And what, build factories in the hope that we won?,” says Poole. “This was a golden opportunity. Nobody gets a 10-year contract like this but Coles came to Murray Goulburn because it wanted to work with farmers.”

4. How does it work for MG?
According to Poole: “Under the supply agreement, the price to Coles is based on a farm-gate price and the cost of processing plus a comfortable profit margin. There’s a rise and fall clause that means the price reflects the changing value of the milk on international markets.”

Hauser explains that the New Zealand and Australian dairy industries are “price takers”, unlike the Europeans and Americans, who have greater control over pricing.

“Australia can’t control the export price but, reading between the lines, Murray Goulburn is using the Coles deal to increase its control over the price it gets for its milk and will position itself for a much greater role in the 2 billion-litre fresh milk market. Because MG will slash the cost of delivering fresh milk to supermarkets, I predict the co-op will be selling supermarkets a billion litres of fresh milk a year by 2023.”

“Aside from milk, the deal also allows MG to range its cheese, butter and spreads in Coles, which makes it even more attractive.”

5. Has the Coles and Murray Goulburn deal devalued milk?
Poole was ever the diplomat on this one, saying the retail price of milk was “up to the supermarkets”. Hauser is a tad more direct. “For people to say milk will be devalued is absolute rubbish,” he says. “This is a great deal for MG’s farmer members. Is it MG’s responsibility to stay out of the market and let nonsense economics run the show?”

6. How will this affect NSW dairy farmers?
Hauser says many NSW dairy farmers will need to reassess their businesses. Milk price in both NSW and Victoria will be based on a mixture of domestic and export value with the export market being a major driver of that value.

The man himself, Robert Poole, says the NSW price will reflect “supply and demand, international prices and a premium that takes into account the added costs associated with supplying exact volumes of milk every month of the year”.

Will it shake up the NSW dairy sector, with its large number of very small farms? Undoubtedly, says Hauser. “NSW’s dairy farmers sold themselves into trouble when they handed over the responsibility for, and the value of, their products to private processors, who have no interest in their viability. Ironically, it is a Victorian farmer cooperative that is now reclaiming control in NSW.”

7. Why should Australians buy Devondale fresh milk rather than Coles homebrand milk?
“That you’ll have to wait and see,” teases Poole. “Seriously, it’s up to us to place Devondale in the market carefully, with the right price, packaging and provenance and other benefits that will appeal to shoppers.”

The co-op does a deal with the devil and keeps its soul

I never thought I’d say this but some of my milk will be sold on Coles’ shelves in both homebrand and Devondale cartons from next year. And I’m pleased.

You see, the co-op we supply, Murray Goulburn, is a giant too. It processes around 35 per cent of Australia’s milk and earns $1.17 billion in exports, making MG one of the largest container exporters from the Port of Melbourne. In other words, it doesn’t have to sell to Coles and Woolies, giving it much greater leverage with the supermarket duopoly. It also has the scale needed to be an efficient processor. Most importantly, its number one goal as a 100% farmer owned co-op is to maintain the profitability of its farmers.

All the same, it is confronting when “our” co-op does a deal with the devil. Has it sold out on us?

I asked dairy analyst, Jon Hauser of Xcheque for his thoughts. “My view is the news is very, very positive,” he said. “This is one of the few things that has the potential to lift the returns for farmers by maybe two or three cents per litre and, perhaps more importantly, it can reduce the volatility of farm gate prices.”

The thing is, while Murray Goulburn exports around half of its milk, reducing our reliance on the supermarkets, that exposure to international commodity prices and the exchange rate can be painful, too. International commodity prices rise and fall like a cork in a bottle and the average Aussie dairy farmer loses about $9,000 (according to my back of the envelope sums) with every cent the Australian dollar rises against the US dollar. Of course, it’s at record highs right now and not looking like falling below parity any time soon. The uncertainty that comes with that volatility makes it very hard for farmers to attract finance and invest with confidence in their businesses.

On the other hand, I wondered why Murray Goulburn could make a profitable $1 milk deal with Coles when Lion, the company currently processing Coles’ homebrand milk, cannot. Jon Hauser thinks it’s largely an issue of supply chain efficiency.

“Leaving aside the aberration of $1.00 discount milk, branded milk retails at about $1.60 per litre and supermarket private label at about $1.20 per litre,” Hauser says.

“Farmers are getting 25 – 35 % of the consumer dollar. In the UK and the US farmer share is closer to 50%. Direct supply by a farmer co-op removes the middleman that is adding cost in marketing and collecting additional value from their brands.

“It is true that the supermarkets will become ‘the brand’ but the farmer co-op should also able to retrieve some of this value. In the case of the Coles/MG deal, MG will get part of that return from the ranging of their own Devondale brand.

“What is most critical in maintaining a balance of commercial power is the ability of farmers to sell their milk to a range of alternate customers. Murray Goulburn has the diversity of product and markets to do that and can now genuinely claim that they have a balanced portfolio of domestic and export sales”.

It all sounds very positive for existing Victorian Murray Goulburn dairy farmers like me. But what about for farmers near Sydney, who have been supplying Lion and Parmalat and who traditionally get so much more for their milk than we do yet depend almost exclusively on supermarkets?

Mike Logan, the head of Dairy Connect, which represents the NSW dairy sector, describes today’s announcement as a “game changer” and in a letter to farmers, had this to say:

“We have three big changes on the table at once;
1. The manufacturing milk price rise
2. The drop in production so that NSW and Qld are now short of fresh milk
3. New models of supply to the supermarkets

“This all adds up to change.

“For the NSW dairy industry it may mean:
1. Investment in new processing capacity
2. A new pricing model for the whole fresh milk industry
3. Re-energising brands such as Devondale and Norco
4. Relocation of a large number of farmer dairy suppliers from one supplier to another
5. Changing role of the processors and processing capacity
6. A risk for the milk vendors as the processing sector changes.

“…the supermarkets have been true to their word and have been looking for new ways to create a sustainable future for the NSW dairy industry. We have to look past the $1/litre milk and build a new future.”

“However, these changes will be at considerable cost to some people. We need to be careful and respectful of the impact of these changes. We do not want to create a situation of winners and losers.”

The reality is, though, that there will be losers. Commenting on the future of the current processor of Coles’ milk, Lion, prominent NSW dairy farmer, Lynne Strong (@CHDairies) said on Twitter that “They have lost QLD plus NSW Coles contracts Cant see them surviving this one #sadbutrue”.

Lion is almost certainly not going to be the only loser in what all agree will be massive upheaval in New South Wales. But there will be winners and maybe, just maybe, represented by an increasingly powerful co-operative, dairy farmers will claw back a little dignity. And you, dear milk drinker, will soon be able to buy 100 per cent farmer-owned fresh milk knowing that all the profits stay right here in Australia.