By Sherry Bunting
USDA announced the February Class I ‘mover’ on Jan. 20 at $21.64. The good news is this is $1.93 higher than the January mover and $6.10 higher than a year ago. The Class I mover is the base price paid for milk going to fluid beverage use before location differentials are added.
The bad news is the February Class I mover is 51 cents less under the current ‘average-plus’ formula ($21.64) than it would have been under the previous ‘higher of’ formula ($22.15).
During the Georgia Dairy Conference this week, retired co-op CEO Calvin Covington, author of the Dixie Dairy Report, gave a positive outlook for 2022. He noted the year begins globally with modest product inventories, reduced production of milk and strong demand for dairy.
When asked about risk, Covington noted that it doesn’t take much change in these factors to swing markets the other way. The higher milk prices go, the more downside risk there is for producers to protect.
When asked about federal order reform ‘consensus’ building and the Class I mover formula, Covington said the reform process was navigated in the past through a hearing process involving the USDA Dairy Division. He also said the Class I mover formula should return to the previous ‘higher of’ method because the costs of serving the Class I market continue to climb while the Class I price takes a back seat to other classes in some months under the ‘averaging’ method.
That may be the case in January and February when final prices are announced, and the possibility exists that this inversion could continue.
For February 2022, the advanced Class III skim milk pricing factor, based on cheese and whey prices in the first two weeks of January, is pegged at $10.43 while the Class IV skim pricing factor, based on butter and powder, is pegged at $12.97. That’s a spread of $2.54 per hundredweight.
This spread has been widening since November — now more than erasing the 74-cent adjuster applied under the current skim ‘averaging’ method. In the February calculation, it was the uptrending butterfat value at $2.7537/lb that softened the blow.
The entire formula figures the average of the two skim pricing factors (Classes III and IV) + 74 cents x 0.965. It also multiplies the butterfat price by 3.5. Then the resulting numbers for skim and fat are added together to form the Class I advance base price – or as it is called, ‘the mover.’ When Class I is highest, milk is sure to ‘move’ to those fresh fluid milk needs, which is one of the main stated purposes of the Federal Milk Marketing Orders.
The February Class I price announcement is the first since June 2021 to fall below the old method using the new method. This happened every month in the second half of 2020 and first half of 2021 as well as three months in 2019. The new method was implemented by USDA in May 2019 due to a legislative change in the 2018 Farm Bill that did not go through a Federal Order hearing process.
From July through December 2021, producers gained 27 to 70 cents from the averaging method as Classes III and IV traded close together. Those brief gains netted around $100 million, which paled in comparison to the approximately $780 million in net Class I value losses to producers from May 2019 through June 2021. With January and February 2022 figured in (no benefit in January and a 51-cent loss in February), the net Class I value loss is now estimated at $687 million for the 34 months since the Class I pricing change began in May 2019.
Supply and demand shocks, supply chain disruptions and other fundamentals are creating the double-impact of rapidly rising dairy product prices and the widening spread between Classes III and IV. The combination is creating a situation where Class I is well on its way to becoming the lowest-priced class, even in some FMMOs after the location differentials are applied.
In fact, if these differences lead to a lot of de-pooling and negative producer price differentials (PPDs), those location differentials will also be shaved in the blend price to producers.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out perhaps differently now that Class IV is leading Class III by a wide margin instead of the other way around as previously.
Here’s what’s been happening since November.
When the Class I mover was calculated for December at $19.17 based on early November pricing factors, dairy farmers benefitted from most of the 74-cent adjuster because the Class III and IV ‘advance’ pricing factors were close together with just a 12-cent spread. By the time the December class and component prices were announced on January 5, Class I mover was surpassed by Class IV at $19.88 and Class II $19.84, but Class III was still behind Class I at $18.36.
Then, when the January Class I price of $19.71 was announced four weeks ago based on the pricing factors back in the beginning of December, the factors began shaping up for the Class I mover to be dead-last by the time the January class and component prices are announced on Feb. 2. It would have been far behind II, III and IV had the block cheese price not lost 21 cents on the CME Spot market this week, pulling futures markets back $1.00 during the Jan. 19 and 20 trading sessions.
With one week of trading to go before January closes, odds are the Class I mover will be surpassed by all other class prices when the final announcement comes out on Feb. 2. Class IV will likely be highest in the mid-$22s, Class II will be close to Class IV, Class III will most likely be over $20 unless block cheddar takes another hit, and Class I will clock in at the previously announced $19.71.
In the January Class I ‘mover’ calculation of $19.71, the Class III and IV pricing factors diverged by precisely $1.48. This is the magic number because the adjuster to the average is 74 cents and 74 x 2 = $1.48. With the January Class I price spot-on equal to what it would have been under the previous ‘higher of’ method, no benefit was received by producers for that ‘adjuster’, and therefore, the issue of Class I being potentially the lowest priced class in the blend price for January is due entirely to the advanced pricing 4 to 6 weeks before the other classes.
February’s pressure on Class I relative to II, III and IV looks to be steeper and will be based on two factors – the 6-week difference in determining the values in a rising market and the widening of the spread between the Class III and IV skim pricing factors.
Looking out across the milk futures months of 2022, the spreads are much wider now than they looked a few months ago, even as the brakes were applied unevenly putting Class III and IV futures trading in reverse adjustment mode today and yesterday.
(NOTE: The USDA Pandemic Market Volatility Assistance Program, PMVAP, authorized $350 million to be paid to farmers at a rate of 80% of their July-Dec 2020 Class I value loss — on up to 5 million pounds of milk per farm via their milk co-ops and handlers and calculated only on FMMO-pooled milk value. But these payments are delayed in most cases, and will fall well short of the real value missed in the milk checks of many dairy farmers across the country as the Class I losses influenced other aspects of FMMO pooling and payment as reflected in negative PPDs.)