Future of Federal Milk Pricing Forum got ‘wheels turning’

‘We need to figure out a way to get farmers’ voices incorporated into this discussion’

Table I reflects a decade of change in FMMO participation as total U.S. milk production grew 13.3% from 2011 to 2021, and the percentage of milk pooled on FMMOs fell from 82% in 2011 to 60.5% in 2021. California became an FMMO in 2018 after previously being a state order, so California’s production is not included in the 2011 pooling comparison so the pooling percentages are relative to production in FMMO and unregulated regions. Class I pounds as a percent of total production fell from 28.7% in 2011 to 18.6% in 2021. Figures for 2021 are shown both ways, including and excluding California to compare to 10 years ago when the number one dairy state had its own state order with different pooling and classification rules and incomplete data, but the percent of change is nonetheless eye-opening. Chart compiled by S. Bunting 

By Sherry Bunting, published in Farmshine, Feb. 18 and 25, 2022

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Do dairy farmers want to save the baby, save the bathwater, change the flow of the bathwater, or tighten the plug on the drain before the bathwater drains to the point of taking baby with it?

That’s a brutal take after 90 minutes and a lot of information, starting with the basics and hearing perspectives and questions during the American Dairy Coalition’s Future of Federal Milk Pricing Forum on Feb. 15.

It was a first step in what ADC sees as a continuing conversation and effort to engage dairy farmers to lead the process. They said the next forum will be in March.

Geared specifically for dairy farmers, the forum attracted 160 participants from across the country, representing every element of the dairy industry — including dairy farmers.

The virtual format was moderated by Dave Natzke, markets and policy editor with Progressive Dairy magazine. Featured presenters were Calvin Covington, retired co-op COO with 45 years of experience in federal and state marketing orders; Frank Doll, a third generation Illinois dairy farmer involved in American Farm Bureau’s dairy policy committee, and Mike McCully, industry consultant on the IDFA dairy ingredients board and economic policy committee.

Included were comments presented by attendees, who pre-registered for three-minute slots. Others typed into the queue.

“This is complicated, and many people say it can’t be fixed, but we have a great amount of expertise and value here. We covered a lot,” said Laurie Fischer, CEO of ADC at the end of the forum. “We can’t just let this drop. We need to continue to move forward.”

“We heard a lot of good information that has everyone’s wheels turning,” added ADC president Walt Moore of Walmoore Holsteins, Chester County, Pa. He encouraged producers to reach out and engage to tackle the hard topics.

The goal of this initial forum was to inform dairy producers on the Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO) and pricing process to become engaged and have a greater voice in guiding future policies.

For its part, American Farm Bureau Federation spent the past couple years going through a similar working group with policy recommendations coming from states to national and back to states. 

Several commenters concurred with the position of ADC, Farm Bureau and other organizations that Class I pricing should return to the ‘higher of’ method until future policies can go through what could be a long hearing process of potential revision for the future.

In fact, one eye opener during the Forum was Doll’s confirmation that Farm Bureau policy now includes support for going back to the ‘higher of’ — plus adding 74 cents — in the calculation of the Class I mover price, while remaining open to other ideas.

Doll said consensus was hard to find in the Farm Bureau working group of 13 members from across the country due to regional differences in the makeup of processing. But general recommendations found agreement, including the reference to Class I as well as modified bloc voting where co-ops can vote for their members on Federal Orders, but farmers can cast their own votes and be encouraged to do so.

Several attendees cited the need for a vehicle for producers to have real input without fear of retribution, that farmers should collectively ask questions of their cooperatives, seek better representation and together, hold their cooperatives accountable to represent their interests. 

“We need to figure out a way to get farmers’ voices incorporated into this discussion. I hear from producers all the time, but there is fear of retribution, the threat that your milk is not going to get picked up. If you are on a board and speak up, you’re not there very long,” said Kim Bremmer, representing Venture Co-op in Wisconsin, a third-party ‘testing co-op’ qualified by USDA.

She addressed bloc voting, saying: “What’s the point of having a hearing if producers can’t vote? We don’t have great representation from some of the groups that say they represent us.”

Bottomline, said Bremmer: “We have to address how to get more of the producer voice and not just the processor voice — because they’re not the same.”

She asked: “Is it a conflict of interest if you’re a processor and you’re marketing milk and you’re also advocating for producers? I think that’s an important question that needs to be answered. We need to stay engaged in this and be able to ask the tough questions and demand some answers.”

ADC’s Fischer said the organization wants to work with farmers and their state and national organizations to provide a vehicle to bring farmers together and compose a list of pricing policy items to explore further with experts.

One clear change in the dairy industry formed the crux of the discussion: The growth of milk production in the U.S. — in concert with growing export sales and declining fluid milk sales — put export sales volume above Class I volume as a percentage of total milk solids in 2021.

McCully described this as “a seismic change.”

Covington confirmed that Class I sales — as a percentage of total milk production — fell below 20% in 2021. The percentage of Class I milk within the 137 billion pounds pooled on 11 FMMOs in 2021 was about 30%.

Contrary to the widely held belief that FMMOs regulate a majority of the milk, they simply do not. Covington confirmed that the 137 billion pounds of milk pooled on 11 FMMOs in 2021 represents only about 60% of U.S. milk production.

The FMMOs aren’t designed for this direction that the dairy industry is going toward global markets, according to McCully.

He said the world will look to the U.S. as the “go-to market,” claiming New Zealand and the EU are maxed out. He described the “white gallon jug” as being the most prime example of a low-margin commodity and predicted ‘value-added’ products will return more dollars to farmers in the future. These are recurrent themes heard from speakers at winter meetings this year.

(Author’s note: In contrast, current industry-wide discussion on the ‘sustainability’ side is for a ‘stable’ U.S. cattle herd to be an indicator of dairy’s climate neutrality. If exports grow, and the U.S. herd remains ‘stable’, then export milk will have to come from growth in output per cow and displacement of Class I production. One can see how geographic camps can set up, since fresh fluid milk sales are vital to the viability of dairy farms in areas outside of the earmarked growth areas for dairy manufacturing in the Central U.S. — the question is how to bridge it.)

At the same time, dragging feet doesn’t seem to be much of an option.

If dairy policy remains ‘status quo,’ leaving the FMMOs ‘as-is,’ they could eventually cover less and less milk and potentially collapse, according to McCully.

Covington also addressed this, noting that FMMOs “were designed for fluid milk, but today, fluid milk is a minority use. People used to drink their milk, now they are eating their milk.”

McCully noted the need for dairy innovation. He said make allowances have facilitated large-scale commodity plant construction supplied by large-scale farms, suggesting it is these built-in make allowance ‘margins’ that favor commodity production and deter innovation. 

“If end-product pricing continues, the make allowances will have to be raised,” he said, citing a new make allowance study “fresh off the press.”

In 2019, USDA commissioned Dr. Mark Stephenson, dairy economist at University of Wisconsin-Madison, to do the study. Stephenson recently announced it is complete and will soon be released by USDA. McCully’s glimpse at the report shows make allowance calculations to be “significantly higher” than the amounts embedded currently in end-product pricing formulas.

Western Pennsylvania dairy nutritionist Harry Stugart offered his concise, data-driven argument that the make allowances be removed from the formula for the ‘advance’ Class I mover price because these make allowances do not pertain to fluid milk. In January 2022, he said they amounted to $2.67 per hundredweight.

Another crucial part of the discussion was how FMMOs actually work and what they do, besides pricing.

Covington gave attendees a primer of key points to think about as discussions move forward. What he shared may be old news to some, but it’s surprising how many people do not know these facts:

— FMMOs are not required by law, they are simply “enabled” to exist by law. This means producers vote to have them (California in 2018) or to terminate them (Idaho 2004).

— Only Class I fluid milk plants are required to be regulated under FMMOs.

— Class II, III and IV plants participate voluntarily, and they tend to do so “when it’s economically feasible.” Rules of participation vary from Order to Order.

— FMMOs establish other things besides minimum pricing for regulated plants. This includes setting payment terms, providing market information and market services such as testing and auditing.

— The last FMMO reform (2000) was complicated and took four years. It was a combination of legislation (1995 Farm Bill) and an administrative rulemaking process.

— Today, there are four classes of milk, but that was not always the case.

— Today, the Class I mover (base price), as well as the Class II, III and IV prices are established to be the same in all FMMOs, but in the past different FMMOs had different mechanisms.

— Cooperatives are not required to pay FMMO minimum prices even if they own regulated Class I plants because cooperatives are viewed by the FMMOs as one big producer and can make their own decisions about distributing the revenue received to their farmer-members.

— Today, over half of the Class I fluid milk plants in the U.S. are either owned by cooperatives or by large retail supermarkets. Over the past 60 years of consolidation, FMMOs have gone from regulating 2250 fluid milk plants in 1960 to just 225 in 2021.

— Cooperatives balance the Class I market at a cost. Excess milk can go to unregulated buyers at a price that is several dollars below the minimum price. Some co-ops run their own balancing plants. These costs can result in paying farmers below minimum price.

“Milk pricing should return a fair cost to producers, processors and retailers. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” said Sherry Bunting, speaking on behalf of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee. She also highlighted the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, H.R. 1861, explaining how support for this legislation is essential — no matter how milk is priced.

“In the process of working on this legislation, our (Grassroots PA) committee has identified other concerns. It is hard for producers to advocate when even such a simple and good thing as whole milk in schools is rebuked,” said Bunting. “Farmers hear from leaders and inspectors: ‘If we sell whole milk in schools, do you think we can just stop making cheese and other products?’ Or ‘All you are doing is disrupting markets and creating a butterfat shortage.’ Or ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ These are veiled threats.”

Bunting highlighted the need for greater competition, accountability, transparency and timeliness of price reporting. 

“Dairy farmers have farms to run, cows to care for, and they become paralyzed by the complexity and lack of transparency in the system and their milk checks. They become overwhelmed and unconfident, even fearing retribution,” she said.

Bremmer specifically addressed milk check transparency.

“We have members with attorneys that cannot interpret their milk checks. That has to stop,” said Bremmer. “Why wouldn’t processors want to show farmers what they are paying them? What is the reason? To have attorneys and others looking at it and they can’t figure it out, that’s a real problem. We think they’re probably re-blending some things to make another ‘make allowance’. We know these things are happening all across the United States.”

Payment terms are critical in this conversation. Even the best-made plans for risk management mean nothing if farmers don’t receive timely and consistent payments for their milk due to the high capital costs and cash flow needs of running a dairy farm. 

One commenter said farmers want their income to come from consumers, not from the federal government. He wondered why Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs) are even needed to guarantee payment.

“Why? So you get paid,” replied panelist Covington. “The FMMOs all establish dates when advance and final payments are made. Having been a co-op manager working with fluid milk plants, I can’t emphasize enough how important this is.”

He also pointed out the important auditing, weights and measures, and market information the FMMOs provide.

McCully said these other services provided by FMMOs are “something we need more of going forward. We need less (price) regulation and more (market) information,” he added. “What’s not working is the milk pricing.”

Here’s where the crux comes into play: The FMMOs are not set up to regulate a global product market, and the industry has set its sights on exporting even more. This is leading the dairy industry to look at how other countries price milk as it relates to the U.S. pricing system and its ability to “be globally competitive.”

As the percentage of Class I sales have declined in relation to growth of U.S. milk production over the past decade, the percentage of milk pooled on FMMOs has also declined from 82% in 2011 to 60% in 2021 (See Table I).

Covington explained how pooling plays out within the FMMO system: “A regulated plant is required to pay its direct shippers and any co-op supplying milk a minimum blend or uniform price. Each Order takes the revenue from each class at the minimum price and pulls it together into one pool to come up with the uniform price.”

He said Class I differentials “have two purposes, to move milk to fluid use and to gain additional revenue for dairy farmers.” They range from $1.60/cwt in the extreme northern U.S. to $6.00/cwt in Miami, Florida and are added to the base Class I mover price. 

The regulated Class I plants pay the difference between the uniform price and the Class I minimum price into the FMMO. Other class plants voluntarily participate to take a draw from the FMMO to add to what they pay their producers. That’s how it has worked most of the time – until now.

Diminished Class I sales as a percentage of total milk flip this switch, and the 2018 Farm Bill change to averaging Class III and IV skim plus 74 cents — instead of the ‘higher of’ — along with the advance pricing element, have increased the de-pooling pressure on this system, especially during times of volatility.

When asked about wide price inversions that occurred in some months over the past two years, both Covington and McCully observed the impact on bottlers paying above minimum prices to attract milk away from then higher-value Class III.

In thinking about the future, Covington reminded attendees of the past. He said at one time some Orders had individual handler pools — not marketwide pools — a nod to the idea of how FMMOs could continue to regulate Class I, if handlers in the other classes lose interest in participation.

Back when California was a state order, virtually all milk was pooled. Plants had to make decisions about pooling annually by January 1. 

McCully contended that this scenario led to dumping of milk and inefficient transport to other areas. According to his analysis, the idea of making the pooling rules more restrictive and uniform across all FMMOs would lead processors to completely leave the system, and they can do that because their participation is voluntary, except for Class I.

Risk management was on the mind of several commenters, including Doll. He pointed out how the ‘holes’ in the Class I pricing change were exposed by the pandemic volatility. (Significant losses to Class I value are occurring again in the February and March 2022 Class I price.)

Joining Doll as a fellow Illinois dairy farmer was Bryan Henrichs. He said the class price inversions during the pandemic left many farmers on the losing end of what they thought were ‘safe’ $18 Class III forward contracts. The up to $9 negative PPDs kept them from achieving that price when the Class III price exceeded the contract level, but the farmer didn’t receive that price in the milk check — a double whammy.

Henrichs and others noted that milk should be priced competitively and simplified. Henrichs mentioned the idea of pricing milk at one price — no matter what it is used for — allowing market participants, including farmers, to manage risk and trade location basis, like for corn.

Arden Tewksbury’s comments from Progressive Agriculture Organization based in Meshoppen, Pennsylvania were presented by Carol Sullivan — highlighting the need for cost of production in the pricing equation, along with a realistic supply management program. 

Annual FMMO pooling decisions (instead of in and out), and his longtime support for whole milk in schools were other key points offered by Tewksbury.

One attendee stated that if processors are looking to raise their ‘make allowances,’ why not add a ‘make allowance’ for producers?

On cost of production, McCully pointed out that the range is wide between a 50,000-cow dairy in western Kansas and a 40-cow dairy in northern Vermont, for example. He said interstate movement of milk and the fact that FMMO participation is voluntary for over 80% of the milk outside of Class I creates issues for using a blanket national average cost of production.

McCully said ‘cost-plus’ contracts are being used today by some processors and producers, but this is only for milk sold outside of the FMMO system.

As confirmed by Covington, 40% of the U.S. milk supply was priced outside of the FMMOs in 2021. He said this could increase as Class I becomes a smaller slice of the growing pie, especially in areas of the country where Class I is already quite small.

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Global thoughts Part 4: As exports grow, who benefits from ‘new math’?

GlobalThoughtsPart4_Chart#2 (1).jpgBy Sherry Bunting, originally published in Farmshine, June 7, 2018 and examines the utilization of domestic Class I fluid milk vs. exported commodities during the worst three months of pricing at the beginning of 2018, but the trends show how FMMO pricing no longer provides the value to farmers for their milk as exports increase. Read Global Thoughts Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — U.S. dairy exports posted record-high 2018 first-quarter volumes (see Chart 1), representing 17.3% of U.S. milk utilization on a milk equivalent basis, according to the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC). (Note, the average Jan. through Oct. was 16.3%, still a record high.)

This, against the backdrop of Class I milk utilization falling to 29% of Federal Order pooled milk but just 18.9% of total milk production in the first quarter of 2018 (Chart 2).

In fact, Federal Order pool reports for first quarter 2018 showed Northeast marketings 1.8% below year ago as pool receipts fell due to reduced production. At the same time, other FMMO pools recorded declines in pool receipts, which USDA confirmed by email were largely due to shifts in pooling or strategic despoiling to prop up Class I utilization percentages. (For example the pooled first quarter receipts in the Appalachian Order were up 6% while down 5.5% in the adjacent Mideast Order.)

globalthoughtspart4_chart#1The total “official” U.S. Class I utilization for 2017 was 26.1%, down nearly 10% from 35.9% in 2009, according to USDA figures.

However, the Northeast Market Administrator’s most recent bulletin (April) observed that the real percentage of total U.S. milk production used for Class I fluid sales in 2017 was just 22.3%!

Bob Younkers, chief economist for the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), analyzed fluid milk trends, reporting in February that the 2017 fluid milk losses, alone, represented 20 million fewer pounds (2.3 million fewer gallons) of milk sold daily – nationwide – in 2017 vs. 2016. In addition to the blow dealt to producer milk checks, Younkers points to how the fixed costs of bottling increase when spread across fewer gallons of milk sold.

Coming into 2018, not only have first quarter Class I sales declined 1.5% compared with first quarter 2017, the Class I utilization percentage fell by even more — down 2.5% below year ago — in part because exports grew to this new first quarter record of 17.3%.

Left unchecked, the current math trend shows that as U.S. exports reach the goal of 20% set by the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), the percentage of milk utilized in export sales will very soon equal and surpass Class I utilization as a percent of total milk production.

Who benefits from this new math?

If the current classified pricing system — and its Class I regulation — must continue, perhaps the growing export utilization should have its own class formula tied directly to export pricing and representing growth milk in the U.S. system so that the other 80% of milk pricing can be more stable and reflective of serving that large anchor-base of domestic consumption?

Survey the experts on this idea and they’ll tell you an export class for U.S. milk pricing is a non-starter because of trade agreements and WTO. But trade agreements are being renegotiated and others in the global markets have mechanisms in play.

Perhaps instead of going after Canada’s export class implemented because of expanded production due to higher consumer demand for fat, the U.S. could learn from what’s being done north of the border with this pricing mechanism to match exports prices and products to growth milk that goes into products strictly for export?

This is not an idea that goes against free trade, but one that recognizes the U.S. as a free-trader in need of fair trade leverage for producer pricing.

The U.S. must be competitive enough to have its products arrive at other ports, so that it can remain competitive enough to keep other products from arriving at its ports — where a large market for dairy already exists. In Part Three, we looked at some of the product differences.

 But there’s another catch to this romance with export markets. They can be unstable and unpredictable, and while we make more of the globally significant products today than in 2008, our product mix and flexibilities are different than other successful exporting nations.

Would an export class allow pricing of growth milk — a percentage of the nation’s production or a percentage of production in high growth areas — to be aligned to the fluctuating global markets for globally-significant products with a margin to attract necessary investments in manufacturing flexibility and innovation? Such alignment could, at the same time, allow a more stable and profitable base price for milk going into dairy products for domestic consumption?

After all, we are increasing exports to levels that are approaching the falling Class I utilization percentages and yet NONE of the globally-significant products and/or prices are even used in the arbitrary U.S. Federal Order pricing formulas, to which location differentials are added to ensure the Class I price is always higher (more on this when we tackle logistics in a future part of this series).

As dairy exports become the new epicenter of U.S. marketing, a different light is cast on these regulatory pricing structures.

Let’s look at the differences between global and domestic pricing and trading platforms.

 For starters, price announcements to dairy producers in New Zealand are based on the actual value of global sales with producers buying shares of processing capacity for the quantity of milk they expect to produce. As milk falls short or exceeds those pegs, payout announcements are adjusted based on the relationship of the production to the sales.

In Europe, producers also see milk prices that reflect the value of what is sold not a formula like in the U.S. that leaves key products, prices and markets out of the math equation.

While Europe’s quota system has ended, the EU commission intervenes with purchases. Processors more nimbly shift between products to adapt to market changes. And if they miss in their projections — as they did in the shift to making more powder when the Russians stopped buying cheese and butter due to the economic sanctions — the EU commission intervened to buy and stockpile that powder to a degree that still is blamed for suppressing the global market for powder and holding back the U.S. milk price recovery.

In addition to differences in pricing, there are big differences between global and U.S. price discovery and trading platforms.

While the CME daily spot market in Chicago went electronic last year, the Global Dairy Trade (GDT) biweekly internet auction has always been an electronic platform.

The GDT engages more buyers and sellers, offers contract sales that are near-term and forward-looking to create what is essentially a 2-month ‘spot’ price, according to Bialkowski and Koeman’s November 2017 study at the University of Canterbury New Zealand of spot market design in relation to the success of futures markets.

They explain the GDT biweekly auction is a vehicle for Fonterra to market 30% of its production and to provide a global exchange for other sellers like Dairy Foods of the U.S. and Arla of Sweden.

The GDT auction includes many products and ingredients — from bulk cheese and butter to whole milk powder, skim milk powder, anhydrous milkfat powder, buttermilk powder, lactose powder, milk protein concentrate, rennet casein and occasionally sweet whey powder. Whey protein concentrate is another globally-significant product, which the U.S. makes and exports a lot of – but that price is never considered in the FMMO classified pricing scheme either.

By contrast, the CME futures markets provide a hedging opportunity for Class III and IV milk and futures markets for the four Federal Order pricing commodities: Cheddar, butter, nonfat dry milk and dry whey. The CME also operates a daily cash “spot” market primarily for three of the four Federal Order commodities – butter, Cheddar and nonfat dry milk.

The CME trades only those specific Federal Order commodities. It is thinly traded with few buyers and sellers, although volume has increased 1 to 3% in the past year since the change to an electronic trading platform.

As a spot market for hedging, Bialkowski’s analysis described the CME cash market as one that is less well-designed because daily ‘spot’ prices are market-clearing and used retroactively in government pricing formulas, with a pricing delay built in, while GDT auction contracts offer pricing points for delivery one to four months forward.

The biweekly GDT prices are always based on actual sales because all product offered is sold. And those sales are weighted to calculate a weighted average for each product as well as an overall weighted performance index for the dairy trade.

The CME spot market, on the other hand, pegs its daily spot prices on the activity occurring in the final moments of its 15-minute daily trading session.

As we saw on a few occasions earlier this year, a CME trading session had multiple loads change hands at specific prices, but the daily spot price was determined by a lower last-minute offer.

Access to the market is also different. CME traders must simply have product to sell and meet payment and delivery terms to buy. The GDT, on the other hand, has a more controlled process where buyers and sellers are vetted and approved by Fonterra of New Zealand because they run the platform.

How will the U.S. dairy industry adapt to competitively manage export growth and volatility? Are changes needed in the mix of commodity pricing and milk utilization formulas that govern the regulatory pricing structures?

If industry leaders want to focus on export market growth and bring home the message that dairy farmers must accept lower prices “because we are in a global market,” then why is the government involved in regulating prices on the shrinking piece of the expanding pie (Class I) and calculating component value from just four commodities while ignoring the globally significant products and their mostly higher prices?

This is new math and it is not adding up.

A national hearing with report to Congress would help examine new thinking and take a closer look at current regulatory pricing schemes. How is price regulation affecting milk movement and location? Do these schemes return enough component value to the farms? Are the arbitrary make allowances creating winners and losers? Would truly free market forces do a better job? Or if classified pricing is here to stay, should we be aligning milk growth in the U.S. with export market growth and price it accordingly?

In Part Five, we’ll look at U.S. dairy imports and why volume is not the only important factor.

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