Dairy at a crossroads Part 2: Blinders off, seek help to navigate

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Fig. 1 from the farm financials in the Pennsylvania Dairy Study shows average annual rate of return on assets 2011-16 for Pennsylvania small, medium and large (over 500 cows) farms compared with a 3-state average (NY, MI, WI) for small, medium and large farms. The Center for Dairy Excellence confirms that producers of all sizes are calling to have Dairy Decision Consultants come out to help them figure out how to move forward and lower their cost of production or the best scenario for exiting the dairy business. 

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 2, 2018 

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Every avenue of approach to a four-way crossroads comes with a temporary stop or yield and the need to know whether to turn one way or the other, double back, or drive forward. Staying put is only an option for the time it takes to know which way to go.

For dairy producers at this turning point, not one of these options can be exercised without knowing the farm’s cost of production and its equity position to decide upon a direction for what’s ahead.

Difficult discussions are being had around farm kitchen tables across the country. Seek out the help that is available to navigate, say dairy lenders and consultants interviewed recently by Farmshine.

“Don’t internalize too much or to try to do it on your own. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help,” says Dale Hershey of Univest Bank and Trust. “Don’t wait to raise your hand until after it’s too late. There are people out there, good people, who can give advice and ways to do this at little or no cost.”

Competitive cost of production is shaping the future of the dairy industry. While we hear about the multi-owner multi-site dairies with nearly 100,000 cows and a very low cost of production, size does not dictate the ability to compete.

“It is being achieved here. We have 100-cow dairies and 1000-cow dairies with very competitive cost of production,” says Mike Peachey of Acuity Advisors and CPAs.

He explains that the Northeast has historically had a higher cost of production for a variety of reasons.

“We have been saved by having higher premiums for our milk, but as those premiums erode, the competitiveness of our operations is exposed,” says Peachey. “It comes down to how well-managed a dairy operation is — regardless of size — and how competitive we can get in cost of production.”

“We used to have a milk price advantage in Pennsylvania. That is gone,” adds Mike Hosterman AgChoice Farm Credit business consultant. “We are less than 25 to 50 cents difference to New York, when it used to be $1.00.”

They both see a wide range in cost of production among dairy farms that can vary by $2 to $3/cwt.

“There is easily a variance (in profitability) from bottom to top of at least $1000 per cow, so it really is segmented by thirds,” says Peachey. “We have a top third with a very competitive cost of production, a middle third hanging in there and a bottom third making tough decisions that carry a lot of emotion.”

“So much of the difference comes back to debt, especially for younger farmers,” says Hershey. “Dairy is tough to get into, and the biggest thing is how you come in. Those beginning farms won’t survive without capital or backing from family. We will have some startups this year, but fewer than other years.”

In this business of large capital investments, Hosterman observes debt per cow creeping higher.

“If you go back 10 years, debt was just under $3000/cow. As milk prices go through these wild swings, the trendline was still slowly increasing so producers could afford that increase. Now the price is leveling out while debt per cow can be over $5000 or $6000,” he reports.

“As lenders, we’re all stepping up to help these producers, but we may not have the capacity to help them all.” He notes that refinancing options, different debt structures, and FSA loan availability are some options.

While the fundamentals of future dairy demand and proximity to consumers in the eastern U.S. would suggest a key place for small farms here, Hershey is realistic about the hand being dealt.

DPAC(farmbill)9261(ExtraPhoto)“To be in this for the long haul, we have to look ahead and know what we’re dealing with,” he says, wistfully reflecting upon growing when his father made a good living with 40 registered dairy cows.

“That model is pretty tough to cash flow right now. I see a return to where we were 40 years ago, where farms here had different things going on, multiple income streams, seeing more farms diversify to strengthen their positions,” says Hershey. “If producers are solely dependent on their small dairies, it will be very tough unless they have a very low cost of production.”

Key advice? “Bring a team in around you.”

“Dairy producers are managing expenses and monitoring cash flows, budgets and cost of production throughout the year. They are bouncing ideas off their advisors and consultants to be more competitive,” says Mike Firestine of Fulton Bank. He was recently recognized by American Bankers Association with the Bruning Award for dedicated leadership.

Extension educators also report they are receiving very high interest from dairy farmers wanting to do financial analysis because of varying degrees of stress already experienced over the past three years.

As for Acuity, Peachey regularly looks at clients’ positions around four key areas: cost of production, percent equity, profitability and cash flow, providing information and context for discussions about where they stand, what is their competitive position and where they think they are going to be not just now, but a year from now.

Because things change from year to year due to many variables, including weather and markets, Peachey says it’s important to be monitoring all the things that go into that “cost of production stew,” including milk quality, good internal herd growth, good milk components and feed conversion.

Armed with a team approach, and the numbers, they can uncover how well the animal husbandry is being managed, the breeding program, pregnancy rates, heifer replacement programs, milk production, especially components, and milk quality.

“Done well, these things add up,” says Peachey. “Small farms can counteract some of the competitive disadvantages on the cost and income sides, by having their good management in all these areas add up.”

This becomes cumulative math. For each year that one dairy is not as competitive as another on cost of production (COP), the impact compounds.

For example, a $50,000 annual difference between two similarly-sized farms adds up to half a million dollars over a 10-year period that’s either not in a bank or being reinvested in the operation to stay competitive or being used to pay down debt to put the farm in a better financial position to weather these storms – to provide the liquidity and working capital to get through it, according to Peachey.

Continual monitoring of the COP and doing annual year-ahead budgets are key, Peachey points out, because “guarding cash flow is very important right now. Producers are really scrutinizing capital expenditures with an understanding of what is a need and a want. They are focusing on investments and management decisions that reduce cost of production beyond the initial payback.”

He notes that cutting costs is tricky: “If reduced feed costs means reduced milk production, for example, it ends up contributing to a tailspin when a cost-cut reduces top line revenue.”

“Some guys may sell off some assets and use proceeds to reduce debt,” says Hosterman, citing sales of mountain ground, extra timber, and selling heifers. “Heifer numbers have increased so much on dairy farms that selling extra heifers is not a bad option to generate some cash,” he says.

cropped-reprotour-73.jpgIn fact, some farms are opting to sell quite a few heifers. Even though prices are not the best, these sales contribute to cash flow, which is critical. Some farms are breeding to beef breeds and producing a dairy beef cross for the feeder market. Again, not a big price, but the cost of the breeding is less, and the calves generate cash flow as well as cost savings. Such strategies require careful thought so as not to jeopardize the position of the herd for the future.

Knowing the farm’s COP provides the information to make these types of decisions.

If the farm’s COP is not competitive, the question is, can it become competitive? Is the farm within striking distance of getting to a competitive COP? If the answer is ‘no’, there may be tough business and family decisions to make, according to Peachey.

He says it is also very important to evaluate the farm’s equity position, to sit down with the lender and look at the way the farm’s debt is structured.

“If the farm still has a strong equity base to restructure things to provide cash flow relief, it should be paired with an assessment of the farm’s COP and what can be done to improve it,” says Peachey. “How much runway do you have to work with? Knowing this is helpful for a restructure, but the airplane still has to get off the ground.”

In other words, equity for restructure provides the runway and working toward a competitive COP elevates the plane before it reaches the end of that runway.

It’s critical to go through the budgeting process, says Peachey, “to understand your cash burn rate for the coming year, to know if you have the working capital and liquidity to absorb this and if you have the broader equity base to recapitalize those losses. If I lose x-amount, can I put that on a 3-year note and pay it off and still be okay?”

Peachey equates the breakeven to a Class III price and looks at it from both the intermediate and long-term perspectives. For the short term, he sees the goal being a Class III breakeven of $15 to $15.50, so if the farm’s basis is $2 over Class III, that equates to a breakeven of $17 to $17.50 in other discussions or venues.

He cautions that, long term, the marketplace is going to demand a lower COP with Class III breakevens down to $13 and $14.

Hosterman concurs: “Some of our best farms are achieving a COP under $16.50 right now, so they can get by at a $14 Class III price, but the bottom third still needs a Class III price of $17, and the average producer needs a $15 or better Class III price to break even.”

“It is being achieved here,” says Peachey. “We can do it, but it gets back to all of the other little things that add up to how well the operation can be managed. When we know our COP, we know the weak spot in our model and can figure out how to compensate for that and find where the opportunities are.”

Hershey has received numerous calls from producers wanting to do these projections and breakevens to navigate the road ahead, and he cites Dr. Kohl’s four cornerstones of success — plan, strategize, implement and monitor. “We are pushing that, more than anything, that farmers who are struggling can ask for help.”

There is high praise for what the Center for Dairy Excellence and Penn State Extension offer to improve producer competitiveness to also improve the state’s competitiveness in dairy.

“The resources, educational opportunities and ways to connect folks are greater than ever,” says Peachey. “We have a strong infrastructure and a lot of good things in place.”

Other states have similar extension and organizational services. Seek them out.

Look for more in future editions of Farmshine as we continue this dairy crossroads conversation with producers, industry participants and leaders in the East… and beyond. The next installment will move into the policy realm with a look at the critically acclaimed film “Forgotten Farms,” produced in New England, and a panel discussion about our nation’s food policy centering on the burning question: why has dairy largely been left out of the local food movement? And what is being done about it.

 

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Ag economy runs counter to urban economy

Dr. Kohl connects dots, prepares farmers for economic reset

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By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, February 2, 2018

EAST EARL, Pa. – “The growth of the economy is hotter than a pepper sprout, but for how much longer?” observed Dr. David Kohl, Virginia Tech professor emeritus. He then opened eyes, and ears, saying that, “When the urban and suburban economies are going gangbusters, the ag and rural economies tend to struggle. That is very typical. The ag economy tends to run counter to the general economy.”

And with that, we were off to the races with Dr. Kohl, who spoke about positioning for success in the economic reset as the keynoter for the annual Univest Ag Summit that drew over 350 people — mainly farm families and many of them dairy producers — to Shady Maple Smorgasbord here last Friday, Jan. 26.

When Kohl is on the agenda for a meeting, you know you are in for an invigorating look at socio-economic trends, and a whole lot more. His high energy presentations deliver tidbits of insight that help make sense of market patterns that are so difficult to understand. The fact that he is a partner in a creamery is just ice cream on top of the cake.

Part of the reason for these opposite fortunes for urban vs. rural economies is the strength of the dollar and the price of oil that coincide.

Kohl is watching what happens with the U.S. dollar because this will influence inflation and interest rates in the general economy as well as exports in the ag economy.

“When the dollar is stronger, we are in a weaker position to trade commodities,” said Kohl. “When the dollar is weaker, it picks up inflation, so we have to watch out for higher interest rates. We are well into this period of low flat interest rates, but that is about to change.”

Kohl sees the Fed raising the prime rate possibly four times in the coming year, but that will depend on the rate of inflation. If it stays below 3%, there will be less incentive to raise interest rates. In fact, the report released that day pegged it at 2.6%. We shall see.

As he went through the indicators, Kohl indicated his bullishness on agriculture in the East. “One-third of the consumers with money reside within 10 hours of you,” he said.

While it is true that as the economy improves and consumers have more money in their pockets, the food processing and foodservice sector positions have improved, the problem is that the farm sector tends to ride at the back of that bus. What makes the difference for ag, according to Kohl, is the economic growth of export partners.

Trade has become integral to the marketing, pricing and distribution of farm commodities, including dairy, according to Kohl.

He travels extensively, especially during meeting season, and he said it is his ability to go out and confirm the numbers that allows him to see trends and connect dots.

Right now, he said, the problem for dairy is that we are working through a surplus. “The high prices of 2014-15 brought in some inefficiencies,” said Kohl. “When I see the bottom third of producers making good money, that’s when I know we will see financial issues within the next two years.”

On the trade issues, Kohl said that 1 out of 7 days’ worth of milk production in the U.S. is exported somewhere, and 39% of those exports are going to Mexico. During a conference in Mexico, he learned that those buyers will go elsewhere and pay more for dairy if they need to.

And while Asia, and China, are important export destinations for farm products, Kohl said that  NAFTA re-negotiations are important because the U.S. exports more ag products to Canada and Mexico, combined, than to China.

He observes that 47% of the Mexican population is under 25 years of age, and that “This youthful population of consumers helps fuel continued growth in U.S. agriculture.”

He also noted that 3 of every 7 consumers with money to buy goods reside in Asia, but the U.S. has pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, “leaving China to fill our spot, so now Canada and Mexico are in the TPP and they are making agreements without us there.”

Kohl acknowledged the currency manipulations that go on by other countries, including China and Mexico, to improve their market competitiveness globally, and he said that is something to watch both in the trade negotiation processes and in terms of economic factors affecting agriculture, particularly as the U.S. dollar is likely to weaken.

Within this trade discussion, Kohl said the single most important thing that President Trump has done is appointing former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as Ambassador to China.

And here’s the stuff you get from a guy like Kohl: Branstad and China’s leader Xi Jinping have a very close trusting relationship that dates back 35 years to their work on an Iowa hog farm. In fact, China’s leader holds a Ph.D. in ag and rural markets. He came from an elite family in China, but during the 1980s farm crisis circumstances had him working on farms in east Iowa.

UnivestMeeting(DaveKohl)2“The leader of China worked on hog farms for two years. He ‘gets’ agriculture,” said Kohl, as he turned to a table populated with blue and gold jackets and said: “The relationships you form today, you will not know their impact down the road.”

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. sealed a “beefed up” pork and protein deal with China that has been good for the livestock sector. Perhaps dairy is next?

 Kohl also watches the weather. South America is in their double crop season and it is dry there. In the U.S. southwest, it is very dry in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. “If this continues through April 15 or May 15 and if it goes to the upper Midwest with a dry Southeast, it will impact corn.

He also keeps a careful eye on oil and energy prices, proclaiming that the U.S. made a pact after 9/11 to become energy independent within 25 years, but has done it in 10.

“We are now the energy leader in the world, so other nations can’t control us anymore,” said Kohl. Oil and energy costs influence the general economy, and really have an impact on farms. “8 out of every 10 dollars spent on the farm business are connected to oil.”

On the flip side of the oil coin is the historical relationship between oil prices and farm commodity prices. Kohl sees oil getting cheaper. “The demand side is changing. People are moving to cities and using public transportation,” he said, adding this surprising statistic: 31% of people aged 18 to 25 do not have a driver’s license.

He also noted that in Germany, they want to outlaw the internal combustion engine by 2040! And that in China, they want to have 25% of all vehicles run by electric by 2025.

The big trends impact so many things over time, and that is why Kohl pays attention to them.

In fact, he noted that the advances in farming technology have produced surpluses by taking the lower yield farms and really improving those yields. “That is what technology does. It improves the bottom end and that creates surplus, and this is why we need export markets.”

What does all of this mean for farmers? Kohl put the “correction” or “reset” he sees coming into perspective, observing that the 1980s correction went down fast and lasted five years. “This one is a grinder,” he said. “We are not seeing a collapse in the ag economy like we did in the 1980s. We are seeing it grinding along and surviving with technology and management.”

Kohl sees the stock market rate of gains as something that can’t last forever and believes it is a “bubble.” He quickly added that many people disagree.

He noted that student debt is record high, the rate of consumer savings in the U.S. is at the lowest level since 2007 and credit card debt just exceeded a trillion dollars.

Bubble or no bubble, Kohl encouraged listeners with his belief that what we have now is an “asset bubble” where equity and resilience will be the tools to guard. “Don’t get complacent on equity,” he urged.

The economic drivers of the current cycle are its elongation into a supercycle, the available technology and management, interest rates, stronger financial underwriting, working capital, land equity cushion, and crop insurance programs.

“Currently 90% of the world economy is hot,” said Kohl, adding that, “If it grows too fast, it’s a weed.” In his opinion, it is growing too fast.

The killers to watch out for are a rise in oil prices, a decline in the stock market, a tightening of credit strategies by the Central Bank and ‘bubbles.’ The bubbles to watch are auto debt, student debt, stock market, credit card debt and farm land asset to credit.

“Economic expansions do not die, they are killed off, and those are the things that can kill them,” said Kohl.

He said workforce development will be critical for sustaining the economic engine that is revving up, and he was encouraged to hear President Trump say last week that, “Not everybody needs to go to college. There is nothing wrong with vocational skills.”

What can dairy farmers do as these macro-economic factors around them are out of their control?

“Look at your business, and drive it toward efficiencies,” said Kohl. “Do your cash flows early and often to adjust to changing tides.”

Recognizing the trend toward diversified income streams on farms in southeast Pennsylvania, Kohl said that is more sustainable in today’s environment.

But the biggest piece of advice he gave was for farmers to “be proactive. Whether large or small, the top producers are making the adjustments, the middle is in denial waiting for bad weather somewhere to bring back commodity prices and the bottom third are at the end of the pier not knowing what is wrong.”

Look for Kohl’s cornerstones for success as this continues in a future edition.