Dairy situation analysis: What’s up with milk production?

Record high milk growth vs. record high losses, dissected

By Sherry Bunting, both parts of a two-part series in Farmshine, July 2021

The dairy industry continues to wait for USDA to provide details on three areas of dairy assistance already approved by Congress or mentioned as “on the way” by Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The fly in the ointment, however, is the record-high 2021 milk production (Table 1) and accelerated growth in cow numbers (Table 2) at a pace the recent USDA World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) expect to continue into 2022.

USDA is reportedly looking at production reports — up vs. year ago by 1.9% in March, 3.5% in April, 4.6% in May — to determine how to assist without adding fuel to expansion that could threaten late 2021 milk prices in the face of rising feed costs and a worsening western drought. (The latter two challenges could temper those forecasts in future WASDEs.)

May milk production a stunner

U.S. milk production totaled 19.9 billion pounds in May. This is a whopping 4.6% increase above 2020 and 2018 and a 4.1% increase over May 2019.

Let’s look at year-to-date. For the first five months of 2021, milk totaled 96 billion pounds, up 2.3% vs. the 93.8 billion pounds for Jan-May of 2020, and it is 4.4% greater than the 91.9 billion pounds of Jan-May milk produced in pre-pandemic 2018 and 2019. Of the four years, only 2020 had the extra production day as a Leap Year.

Milk per cow was up 3% over year ago in May. Compared with 2019, output per cow is up 2.2%, according to USDA.

Cow numbers vs. 2018 tell the story

Milk cows on U.S. dairies in May 2021 totaled 9.5 million head, up 145,000 from May 2020’s 9.36 million, up 172,000 from 2019’s 9.33 million, and up 83,000 head from 2018’s 9.42 million.

Counter to the national trend, Pennsylvania had 48,000 fewer milk cows than May 2018 — dropping 30,000 into 2019; 10,000 into 2020, and 8,000 into 2021.

Elsewhere in the Northeast and Southeast milksheds, among the 24 major monthly-reported states, New York had 4000 more milk cows in May 2021 than 2018, Vermont 8000 fewer. Georgia dropped 1000, Florida 12,000, and Virginia 11,000. In the Central states, Illinois was down 10,000 head.

The total decline in cow numbers for the 24 lesser quarterly-reported states, the collective loss in cow numbers is 59,000 head from May 2018 to May 2021

Accelerated growth is coming from three key areas where major new processing assets have been built or expanded.

In the Mideast, where the new Glanbia-DFA-Select plant became fully operational in Michigan this spring, there is a net gain of 32,000 cows for 2021 vs. 2018, Ohio’s cow numbers that had been declining 2018-19, began recovering in 2020-21. Indiana had 18 months of substantial growth, and Michigan returned to its growth pattern in 2020. Taken together, the Indiana-Ohio-Michigan region had a loss of 8,000 cows heading into 2020, but gained a whopping 40,000 cows over the past year.

In the Central Plains, where new plant capacity is starting up this spring and summer — Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa, combined, added 40,000 cows May 2018 to May 2021.

In the Southern Plains, where joint-venture processing capacity continues to grow, Texas has continued full-steam-ahead, gaining 87,000 cows from 2018 to 2021, along with 29,000 added in Colorado and 17,000 in Kansas. New Mexico regained earlier losses to be 2000-head shy of 2018.

The growth patterns in these regions somewhat mirrored dairy exits from other areas — until Jan. 2020 (Table 2). The past 17 consecutive months of year-over-year increases in cow numbers leave the U.S. herd at its largest number in 26 years (1995).

However, the assumption that ‘dairy producers are okay because the industry is expanding’ ignores several essential factors. The playing field has become more complicated and inequitable. There are four main factors at play. We’ll look at them one at a time.

Ben Butler of South Florida posted this photo that went viral on Twitter April 2, 2020 of milk being dumped in Florida because there was no home for it. A few days later, he tweeted photos of milk gallons also being donated to Palm Beach County families in need. Challenges abound in the dairy supply chain. The unofficial tally of milk dumped in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region the first week of April 2020 was north of 200 loads, with additional reports of 130 loads dumped in the Southeast. Meanwhile, stores were not well stocked, most were limiting purchases and foodbanks were getting more requests as over 10 million people were newly out of work.

Factor #1 — Milk dumping and base programs 

A year ago in April and May 2020 — at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic disruptions — the dairy industry saw dumping of milk, stricter base programs and bigger milk check deductions. Producers culled cows, dried cows off early, changed their feeding programs, even fed milk in dairy rations.

But milk production still grew, according to the USDA data.

Some cooperatives and milk buyers, like Land O’Lakes, had base programs already in place and triggered them. Others made changes to prior programs or implemented new ones.

Dairy Farmers of America — the nation’s largest milk cooperative, largest North American dairy processor and third-ranked globally by Rabobank — quickly implemented a new base program in May 2020, seeking 10 to 15% in production cuts from members, varying by region, with overage priced on ‘market conditions.’

It is difficult to assess the ‘equity’ in these base programs and the cross-layers among producers between and within regions, or to know how these ‘bases’ are being handled presently. When questioned, spokespersons say base decisions are set by regional boards.

Meanwhile, product inventory and pricing schemes affect all regions, and milk rides between FMMOs in tankers and packages — with ease.

According to USDA, the 11 FMMOs dumped and diverted 541 million pounds of milk pooled as ‘other use’, priced at Class IV, during the first five months of 2020, of which 350 million pounds were in April alone. This is more than three times the ‘other use’ milk reported by FMMOs during the first five months of pre-pandemic 2019 (171.4 million pounds). By June, the amounts were double previous years.

Of this, the largest amount, by far, was the 181 million pounds of ‘other use’ milk in the Northeast FMMO 1 during Jan-May 2020, comprising one-third of all the dumped and diverted milk pooled across all 11 FMMOs in that 5-month period.

In the Southeast milkshed, the Appalachian, Florida and Southeast FMMOs 5, 6 and 7, together pooled 88 million pounds of ‘other use’ milk in the first five months of 2020. The Southwest FMMO 126 had 106.2 million pounds of ‘other use’ milk; Upper Midwest FMMO 30 had 46.1 million pounds; Central FMMO 32 had 36.7 million pounds; Mideast FMMO 33 had 30.7 million pounds; California FMMO 51 had 28.9 million pounds; Arizona FMMO 131 had 21.7 million pounds; and Pacific Northwest FMMO 124 had 1.3 million pounds.

The dumping had begun the last week of March 2020 and was heaviest in the month of April. Producers also saw deductions as high as $2/cwt. for balancing costs, lost quality premiums, and increased milk hauling costs. Unaccounted for, were the pounds of milk that had reportedly been dumped on farms without being pooled on FMMOs.

All of this against a backdrop of pandemic bottlenecks and record-high March-through-August imports of butter, butteroil, milkfat powder, and blends — adding to record-high U.S. butter inventories and contributing to the plunging Class IV, II and I prices vs. Class III (PPD).

Meanwhile, not only did production growth in key areas move ahead, so did strategic global partnerships. Just one puzzling example in October 2020, after eight months of deflated producer milk checks, depressed butterfat value, burdensome butter inventory, record butterfat imports, and a plunging Class IV milk price that contributed to negative producer price differential (PPD) losses, Land O’Lakes inked a deal to market and distribute cooking creams and cream cheeses — Class II and IV products that use butterfat — from New Zealand’s Fonterra into United States foodservice accounts.

The New Zealand press reports were gleeful, citing this as a big breakthrough that could be followed by other of their cheeses entering the “huge” U.S. foodservice market through the Land O’Lakes distribution.

Factor #2 — Class price wars and de-pooling

As reported in Farmshine last summer, dairy farmers found themselves in uncharted waters. As Class IV prices tumbled from the get-go with all of the ‘other use’ dumping and diverting, butter inventory building as butter/powder plants tried to keep up with diverted loads at a disruptive time, the USDA Food Box program started drawing products in the second half of May, and really got going by July 2020. 

Cheese, a Class III product, was a big Food Box winner. The cheese-driven Class III milk price rallied $7 to $10 above Class IV, and massive volumes of milk were de-pooled by Class III handlers, which has continued through May 2021.

Reviewing the class utilization reports, an estimated 80 billion pounds of Class III milk normally associated with FMMOs has been de-pooled over the past 26 months.

At the start of this ‘inequitable’ situation, academic webinars sought to explain it.

“We’re seeing milk class wars,” said economist Dan Basse of AgResource Company, a domestic and international ag research firm in Chicago, during a PDPW Dairy Signal webinar a year ago. 

He noted that under the current four-class pricing system, and the new way of calculating the Class I Mover, dairy farmers found themselves “living on the edge, not knowing what the PPD (Producer Price Differential) will be” (and wondering where that market revenue goes).

“A $7.00 per hundredweight discount is a lot of capital, a lot of income and a lot of margin to lose with no way to hedge for it, no way to protect it, when the losses are not being made up at home as reflected in the PPD,” Basse said in that summer 2020 webinar.

What does this have to do with year-over-year milk production comparisons?

Two words: Winners. Losers. 

Some handlers, and producers won, others lost — between and within regions.

Here’s why all of this matters from a production comparison standpoint: Dairy economists — Dr. Mark Stephenson, University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Marin Bozic, University of Minnesota — are both on record acknowledging that USDA NASS uses FMMO settlement data, along with producer surveys, to benchmark monthly milk production.

So, on the one hand: How accurate are these data for comparison over the past 26 months, given the inconsistent FMMO data from dumping, diverting and de-pooling? 

On the other hand: Did the negative PPDs and de-pooling, resulting in part from the 2018 Farm Bill change in the Class I Mover, allow Class III handlers to capture all of that additional market value and use it to fuel the 2020-21 accelerated milk growth for regions and entities connected to the new Class III processing assets?

Factor #3 — New dual-processing concentrates growth

Accelerated growth in cow numbers is fueling record production in 2021. It is patterned around ‘waves’ of major new processing investments in some areas, while other areas — largely fluid milk regions — are withering on the vine or growing by smaller margins with fewer cows. 

In the 24 major milk states, production growth was even greater than the All-U.S. total — up 4.9% vs. year ago. In part one, the breakdown was shown vs. 2018.

Here’s the breakdown for just the 12 months from May 2020 to May 2021 — a time in which the industry dealt divergences that created steep losses for some and big gains for others, while FMMOs became dysfunctional. 

In just one year, over 40,000 cows were added in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, combined, and milk production was up in May 2021 by 12.6, 3.2 and 5.1%, respectively. The draw is the massive new Glanbia-DFA-Select joint-venture cheese and ingredient plant that began operations late last year in St. Johns, Michigan. Sources indicate it reached full capacity this spring. Add to this the 2018 Walmart fluid milk plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana and other expansions in Ohio and Michigan.

Ditto for the Central Plains, where new cheese and ingredient line capacity became operational this spring and summer. Supplying these investments, Minnesota grew production 6%, South Dakota 14.6%, and Iowa 6.2% over year ago. 

Number two Wisconsin grew by 5.6% in May 2021 vs. year ago.

Milk production was up 5% in number one California, even though cow numbers were down by 1000 head, and dairy farmers in a referendum voted recently by a slim margin to keep their quota system. They are also dealing with a devastating drought that news reports indicate is now impacting both the dairies and the almond growers.

Then there’s Texas, where growth continues to be a double-digit steamroller, up 10.8% in May 2021 vs. 2020 — pushing New York (up 4.2%) to fifth rank. 

The Southern Plains has had several strategic investments, starting in Texas and New Mexico (up 6% vs. year ago).

In Colorado, where production was up 5.3% in May, DFA’s joint ventures and strategic partnerships with Leprino, Kroger and others have fueled growth.

Kansas grew milk production 7.3% vs. year ago. In 2018, a state-of-the-art whole milk powder and ingredient plant became fully operational in Garden City, Kansas. The plant was to be a joint-venture between DFA and the Chinese company Yili but ended up as a joint-venture between DFA and 12 of its member farms that are among the 21 Kansas dairies shipping milk to it.

DFA’s Ed Gallagher gave some insights on this during a May 2021 Hoards webinar. He said, “We went through a period of investing in powder plants in the U.S. It seems like there is a follow-the-leader approach when deciding on investments, and it goes in waves. The industry just completed a wave of a lot of investment in Class IV manufacturing plants, and now… it’s flipping to Class III.”

Looking back on the Class IV ‘wave’ 2013 through 2018, there were several times in those years that Class IV beat Class III, leading to FMMO de-pooling, but not to the extreme extent seen in the past 12 months as Class III now beats all other classes, including Class I, leading to negative producer price differentials (PPDs).

Gallagher sees Class III and IV prices “coming together” in the “next period of years” because the ‘wave’ of capacity investment has flipped from Class IV to III. He predicted more Class III capacity will be added.

Are these past 26 months of PPD net losses for producers the industry’s answer to, in effect, increasing processor ‘make allowances’ without a hearing?

The average PPD value loss (see chart) across the seven multiple component pricing FMMOs was $2.57 per hundredweight for 26 months, which began with implementation of the new Class I pricing method May 2019 through the most recent uniform price announcements for June 2021 milk. 

Applying a conservative 5-year average PPD (prior to Class I change) for each FMMO, only the few gray blocks on the chart represent ‘normal.’

This means even positive-PPDs show margin loss for farm milk pooled on FMMOs. In fact, the CME futures markets as of July 14 show August through December divergence between Class III and IV above the $1.48 mark, indicating Class I value loss and negative PPDs or smaller positive PPDs could return after barely a two-month reprieve.

Many handlers that don’t pool on FMMOs also use the uniform prices as a benchmark.

This $2.57 net loss for seven MCP FMMOs across 26 months represents almost a doubling of the current make allowance levels.

Current USDA make allowances and yield factors add up to a processor credit of $3.17 per hundredweight on Class III and $2.17 on Class IV. This already represents 11 to 25% of farm milk value, according to 2018 analysis by John Newton, when he was Farm Bureau’s chief economist.

Why is this important? Because we are already seeing additional margin transfer from Class I to Class IV as the industry moves to blended beverages that mostly use ultrafiltered (UF) milk solids. Blends using whey would fall under Class III.

Looking ahead, DFA now owns most of the former Dean Foods’ Class I fluid milk plants since May 2020. New manufacturing synergies are undeniable, considering the direction of dairy checkoff’s fluid milk revitalization plan emphasizing these dairy-based-and-blended beverages and ‘dual-purpose’ processing facilities. 

Dairy + Almond is a Live Real Farms beverage made by DFA and was launched through DMI’s Innovation Center with checkoff funds paid by all dairy farmers. The milk in this beverage is not priced as Class I, though it competes in the dairy case and is being promoted as a “Purely Perfect Blend.”

As low-fat UF milk solids are blended with other ingredients in a manufacturing process to make new combined beverages, the result is a competing beverage, and the milk in the beverage drops from Class I to Class IV.

Meanwhile, these beverages cost more at the grocery store, and the ingredients are not part of the USDA end-product pricing ‘circle’. Therefore, no new make allowances should be requested because processors are already getting a reduced class value, and a higher margin.

DMI’ vice president of global innovation partnerships, Paul Ziemnisky, gave some insights into this “future of dairy beverages” — and how it ties into new processing plants investments during the virtual Pennsylvania Dairy Summit in February.

Ziemnisky went so far as to say new processing facilities will “need to be built as beverage plants able to handle all kinds of ingredients” for the blended products of the future. In essence, he said, the future of fluid milk is “dual purpose” processing plants.

DMI’s usdairy.com website touts the checkoff launches of ‘blended’ dairy-‘based’ beverages — key to DMI’s fluid milk revitalization plan. Not flavorings, these blends dilute milk out of Class I, the highest farm-level pricing, and mainly into Class IV, the lowest. The resulting beverages compete in the dairy cooler with Class I fluid milk. Screen view

While 11 of the top 24 states had milk production increases of 5% or more in May, the 13 states with increases below 5%, or negative, are mainly located within traditional Class I fluid milk marketing areas: Florida, up 0.5%, Georgia up 2%, Virginia down 2.3%, Illinois up 1.9%, Arizona, down 0.5%, Washington, down 0.9%, Pennsylvania and Vermont both up 1.8%, and New York up 4.2%. 

Idaho and Utah, up 2% and unchanged, are outliers and largely unregulated by FMMOs. Some beverage assets are coming to that region in the form of ultra-filtration and aseptic packaging, including a plant renovation to make Darigold’s FIT beverage. Additionally, a new Fairlife filtration membrane plant was opened near Phoenix, Arizona in March, and Kroger is doing filtration and aseptic packaging in Colorado.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is often described as a ‘fluid milk state’ with a Milk Marketing Board setting minimum prices for fluid milk, and a string of independent milk bottlers that figure prominently in their communities.

Ranked fourth in milk production in 2006, Pennsylvania was passed by Idaho in 2007. By 2016, Michigan had pushed Pennsylvania to sixth. The very next year, in 2017, Texas leapfrogged both Pennsylvania and Michigan. Now, Minnesota has pushed the Keystone State to eighth.

How does the future of dairy affect traditionally ‘fluid milk’ states like Pennsylvania, or the Southeast for that matter?

New dairy-‘based’ beverage innovations can be made anywhere and delivered anywhere, often as shelf-stable products. Most are not Class I products unless they meet the strict FMMO definition which was last spelled out in the USDA AMS 2010 final rule. 

For now, this also includes the Pa. Milk Marketing Board. Executive secretary Carol Hardbarger confirms that the 50/50 drinks are not regulated under PMMB, which generally uses federal classification, but that a legal interpretation of the Milk Marketing Law with regard to blends may be in order.

The 50/50 blends are already in some Pennsylvania stores and elsewhere in the Northeast, which is the second phase of the ‘undeniably, purely perfect’ marketing plan for fluid milk revitalization.

Factor #4 — USDA, industry coalesce around climate

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack has been outspoken from the outset about using and aiming every available USDA program dollar in a way that also addresses the Biden administration’s strategies for equity, supply chain resiliency, and climate action.

Speculating a bit as to why USDA is taking so long to announce details about already funded dairy assistance, it could be that Sec. Vilsack is looking at the fit for ‘climate impact.’

Paid around a million a year in dairy checkoff funds to serve 4 four years as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council — between prior and current Ag Secretary posts — Vilsack understands the future plans of the dairy industry’s checkoff-funded proprietary precompetitive alliances on a global scale. 

Vilsack has been privy to the DMI Innovation Center’s discussions of fluid milk revitalization through ‘dual purpose’ plants and blended beverages. He is no doubt looking at the accelerating growth in milk production that is occurring right now for ways to tie dairy assistance to measured climate impacts in the net-zero file.

Producers on the coasts and fringes of identified growth areas have a target — fresh fluid milk and other dairy products produced in regional food systems for consumers who have a renewed zeal for ‘local.’ Fresh fluid milk will have to find a path outside of the consolidating system and cut through the global climate-marketing to directly communicate fresh, local, sustainable messages about a region’s farms, animals, environments, businesses, economies, jobs and community fabric.

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Grassroots efforts continue seeking solution to Class I formula change losses

While the buck is being passed, dairy producers are talking with lawmakers about the unintended consequences from the Class I mover change Congress enacted in the 2018 Farm Bill.

This illustrates the Class I mover formula since May 2019. Prior to that, the ‘higher of’ Class III or Class IV advance skim pricing factors was plugged into the first item under step 1 without the +74-cent adjuster to automatically be used as the Base Class I Skim Milk Price in the rest of the formula. Image Source: USDA

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, May 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Class I ‘mover’ is the subject of much discussion — two years after the averaging method plus 74 cents replaced the ‘higher of’ method to determine the base producer price of Class I beverage milk in May 2019.

A letter drafted by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is gathering signatures from Senators and will be sent to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding financial assistance to cover direct and indirect losses borne by dairy farmers due to the formula change exacerbated by the pandemic.

“By allocating more direct payments through CFAP, USDA could take action to reduce the strain that dairy farmers are facing. Specifically, the agency should continue issuing payments to dairy farmers under CFAP, or through any further assistance programs that USDA conceives, including the Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative, for the first six months of 2021 and make these payments retroactive to January 1st,” the Senator’s letter states.

The American Dairy Coalition is urging producers to contact their Senators about signing onto the letter by end of day Monday, May 17. Senators should contact Dominic Sanchez at Senator Gillibrand’s office by email at Dominic_Sanchez@gillibrand.senate.gov

A transparent USDA hearing process was used 20 years ago to originally set the ‘higher of’ as the method when USDA rejected proposals for averaging Class III and IV due to depooling and negative differentials. However, in the 2018 Farm Bill, the Class I mover was changed from ‘higher of’ to an averaging method legislatively without hearings, without comment, without the producer referendum — without vetting.

Dairy groups are working to raise awareness among key lawmakers and USDA about the 24-month net loss of over $750 million in the Class I mover price from May 2019 through April 2021. In addition, these losses impacted orderly marketing and other factors, contributing to net losses exceeding $3 billion nationwide from inverted class price relationships that produced negative PPDs and led to depooling. In addition, dairy farmers had risk management losses when their milk was devalued, but they paid for risk management that failed because it was aligned with a “market value” they did not receive.

Sen. Gillibrand’s letter highlights the concern about the unintended consequences of the Class I formula change to averaging and away from ‘higher of’.

In the Northeast FMMO 1, for example, the Class I change, alone, accounted for a net loss of over $160 million in Class I devaluation over 24 months, and there were broader impacts of basis losses from reduced and negative producer price differentials (PPD) and depooling.

Northeast producer blend price losses are estimated to be $1.10/cwt, net, from May 2019 through April 2021. (Calculations are being done for other FMMO regions so stay tuned.)

Similar loss estimations can be made for broader impacts across the U.S., depending upon how cheese plants determined pay prices for farmers when the FMMO uniform blend prices were suppressed by $1 to $10 across 7 of the 11 FMMOs that report producer price differentials. These PPDs were severely negative from October through December 2019 and from June 2020 through April 2021.

These formula-related losses are expected to continue through most of 2021 due to current market factors affecting how the class pricing formulas, with the change to Class I, relate to each other and how this impacts depooling.

Producers from the Southeast U.S. also began circulating a letter to Secretary Vilsack this week highlighting the steep losses in the three Southeast FMMOs and seeking direct payments through Coronavirus stimulus funds.

The Southeast letter asserts that milk producers in FMMO 5, 6, and 7 (Appalachian, Florida and Southeast) disproportionately bore 21% ($155 million) of the lost revenue directly attributable to the Class I mover change, because the 21% of Class I value loss fell on dairy farmers shipping just 5.5% of total milk pooled across all orders in the U.S.

Southeast producer blend price losses are pegged at $1.25/cwt.

The Southeast letter states that the loss was not shared equitably among all dairy farmers, due to depooling, which the letter indicates made it possible for dairy farmers marketing milk to cheese plants (Class III) to receive the shortfall.

However, many producers whose milk was depooled from FMMOs did not receive that shortfall from milk buyers, unless they had milk contracts based directly on cheese prices. Many manufacturing class handlers use the FMMO blend price as the benchmark for paying producers outside of pooling.

Several industry sources observe that this change turned out to be a big benefit to processors at great expense to producers. The problem surfaced under market conditions before the pandemic and was made worse by market conditions since the pandemic.

Even National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has admitted as much, stating that the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) wanted this change in the first place. NMPF indicates they went along with it after studying some historical trends thinking the 74-cent adjuster to the average would produce a result that was “revenue-neutral” for dairy farmers.

It was anything but ‘revenue-neutral’ for dairy farmers, even before the pandemic. The pandemic impact simply magnified the severity of loss.

Proposals continue surfacing since NMPF announced its intention to seek a USDA emergency hearing with a proposal to tweak the adjuster to the average every two years.

Minnesota Milk Producers, Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, Edge Cooperative and the Nebraska State Dairy Association joined together with a concept to change the Class I mover to a Class III-Plus that would be based on Class III announced prices instead of advance prices.

FarmFirst Cooperative based in Madison, Wisconsin, announced it would put forward a proposal to return to the ‘higher of’ calculation — if USDA holds a hearing. However, to-date, no official FMMO hearing requests have been received by USDA.

The first few months of the new Class I mover formula in 2019 were net-positive to the Class I price, but this dissolved by July, almost a year before the pandemic, when the gap between the rising Class III price and the averaging method for the Class I mover narrowed because the spread between Class III and IV widened.

Government food box dairy purchases through the pandemic included more Class III products (cheese) than Class IV (butter/powder) or Class II (soft products that are priced by Class IV).

But food boxes included plenty of Class I (fluid milk). Trouble is, fluid milk is not ‘market valued’ except for the value of its components in manufacturing. Fluid milk is discounted as a ‘loss-leader’ by large supermarkets, especially those that process milk.

Another factor that contributed to the wide spread between Class III and IV pricing has been the difference in product inventory as a factor of production, exports and imports.

In 2020, butter inventory reached a 20-year high, while cheese inventory declined. Butter production increased, especially in the first half of 2020, to exceed the record-breaking production of 2018, making less cream available for cheese production. Meanwhile, cheese exports rose 16% while butter exports declined 5%.

On the flip side, cheese imports declined 10% while butter imports were the second largest on record, up 15% over the previous year for the first 7 months of 2020. The U.S. ended 2020 with butter imports 6% above 2019.

The Class I formula change made FMMOs even more vulnerable to massive depooling against this volatile and divergent backdrop of Class III vs. IV. As averaging reduced Class I pricing, and the Class III milk was depooled, the net result was blend prices that reflected a larger portion of the much lower Class IV (and II). Dairy farmers have been educated to produce milk with higher component levels of fat and protein as a method to improve profitability, but negative PPDs snub this value at the farm level.

Looking through USDA Federal Milk Marketing Order statistical bulletins, this reporter calculates over 70 billion pounds of milk were depooled across all FMMOs from July 2019 through March 2021 due to inverted class pricing.

PPDs reflect the difference between the Class III market value of components minus the blend price of all classes in the pool. When PPDs are negative, it reflects insufficient pool funds to pay that value).

The depooling of Class III milk and the negative PPDs (above) began on the West Coast in July 2019. By September through December 2019, all multiple component FMMOs had negative PPDs, that became more negative as volumes of depooled milk were noted in the central part of the country, moving east.

The four skim/fat pricing FMMOs in the Southeast and Arizona were quite negatively affected by lower Class I minimums in the fall of 2019 and for many of the months thereafter. Topsy-turvy All-Milk and Mailbox Milk prices reported by USDA are further proof of shrinking basis in producer milk checks affecting the performance of purchased risk management tools. Even those USDA-reported All-Milk and Mailbox prices do not tell the whole story because USDA states that “the value is in the marketplace” even if it is not equitably shared with producers.

In essence, the Class I mover change was made to give large global companies buying large volumes of milk a means of ‘hedging’ their risk through forward-contracting on the futures markets. But this ‘benefit’ has resulted in taking real money out of dairy farm milk checks and has made it difficult, in some cases impossible, for producers to manage their risk with tools they purchase in the marketplace and through USDA.

Interestingly, the nation’s largest Class I fluid milk company — Dean Foods — filed for bankruptcy sale and reorganization in November 2019 in the midst of the first appearance of negative PPDs and depooling pre-pandemic.

By January 2020, PPDs turned positive but narrow in comparison to prior history, so that’s still a loss. Then, in February, a month before the Coronavirus shutdown, negative PPDs and depooling again showed up in the Central, Pacific and California FMMOs.

By June 2020 — in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and one month after the bankruptcy sale of most of the Dean Foods Class I fluid milk plants to DFA — severely negative PPDs of -$1 to -$10, exacerbated by depooling, were prevalent across all FMMOs, most every month from June 2020 through the present.

Even in the Northeast FMMO, where statistics show positive PPDs in some months when other FMMOs were negative, the basis loss to Northeast producers is real because even the positive PPDs in FMMO 1 over the past 24 months are $1 or more below where they were just two years earlier.

As reported in Farmshine last week, Secretary Vilsack says it’s “complicated” and the industry is “divided” so no “significant” changes can be made “quickly.”

NMPF says it intends to request an FMMO hearing of its proposal to adjust the adjuster to improve equitable treatment of producers.

IDFA is publicly silent.

Other groups are floating a proposal that, if officially proposed in an emergency hearing, would turn the deal into a full and lengthy FMMO hearing.

During a Hoards Dairy Livestream session May 5 with Erin Taylor from USDA AMS Dairy Division, a little more was learned about how USDA handles ‘emergency’ FMMO hearings. Taylor said proposals can be put forward with arguments as part of the package, explaining the emergency to make a case for why the USDA should move quickly. USDA then typically responds and gives the industry a 30 day notice if a hearing is granted, but the statute only requires 15 days, and 3 days at a minimum — depending on the emergency conditions.

Like other FMMO hearings, testimony is taken, and if USDA agrees with the proposal based on the evidence, the department could do a recommended decision, receive public comment and then publish a final decision and conduct the producer vote. Or, the Secretary can do a tentative final decision for immediate producer vote while taking testimony concurrently. In such a scenario, USDA would come back and consider that testimony, and if a change to the tentative final decision is made — based on testimony and comment — then a second producer vote would be conducted.

Generally speaking, according to Taylor, a move to use a tentative final decision cuts about 4 to 5 months out of the hearing process, but this is not done without proponents showing good cause and when there is no opposition to the proposal.

And the Congress? They made the change from ‘higher of’ to ‘average-plus’ at the request of IDFA with agreement by NMPF in the last Farm Bill.

Many members of Congress don’t know what they did. Others are “blowing it off” as “pandemic-related,” when in reality the issues began in 2019.

Lawmakers are also being told the 2018 ‘average-plus’ deal was an historic agreement between “producers” (NMPF) and “processors” (IDFA), when in reality the grassroots in either of those categories had no opportunity to be heard, to testify, to comment, and producers were denied a referendum on the change. In addition, there was little industrywide discussion.

National and state dairy organizations have been collaborating on weekly calls facilitated by American Dairy Coalition to thoughtfully approach a solution from both the short- and long-term perspectives.

While most would agree hearings on long-term FMMO reforms are needed, the short-term fix for the unvetted Class I formula change by Congress could be undone with legislation reverting to the previous formula, or through an expedited FMMO hearing as the flaws of the new formula have been revealed in both the pre- and post-pandemic markets by this average-plus change that was not vetted.

Grassroots efforts seek to raise awareness in Congress to move something forward legislatively.

While the Congress has always said it does not want to set precedent for making milk price formula changes outside of the vetting process of an FMMO hearing, and while the Congress rebuffed numerous requests for a national FMMO hearing in every Farm Bill since 2008, the Congress did go ahead and set that formula-changing precedent in 2018 by passing language in the Farm Bill to change the method for determining the Class I mover from the ‘higher of’ Class III or IV to ‘average-plus’… and here we are.

Producers can point this out when talking with lawmakers, to let them know that the current situation is unsustainable. Producers can explain to their legislators how this impacted them, to help them understand there is more to this story than “it’s the pandemic and you’ll be fine.”

If nothing is done, several industry observers see dairy farm exits rising at a faster rate in the coming year.

In short, the Class I mover change in the 2018 Farm Bill:

— was not vetted through a transparent hearing process,

— disrupted orderly marketing,

— undermined Federal Order purpose,

— created NET losses for producers of $751 million in Class I value (May 2019 through April 2021), and contributed to a net loss of over $3 billion in negative PPDs and depooling,

— created additional losses for producers in the failure of risk management tools not designed for inverted pricing, and

— undermined performance of the DMC safety net due to basis loss.

While the American Dairy Coalition continues to facilitate grassroots producer discussion and seeks a seat at the table for producers with NMPF and IDFA, ADC has also sent an email to dairy producers and organizations with a letter they can provide to lawmakers.

The most important thing is for lawmakers to understand how the pricing change, and the domino effect of negative PPDs and depooling have affected their already struggling dairy farm constituents over the past two years.

To locate the Senators and Representatives for your state, visit https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members

Farmers send June milk check data and preliminary review is revealing

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UPDATED! By Sherry Bunting, Updated from the article in July 24 Farmshine print edition

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — June milk check reports are pouring in after Farmshine’s previous article about negative Producer Price Differentials (PPD) included a request for milk check data from readers. Along with the data, we are receiving many comments.

One producer notes the PPD had typically averaged a positive $1.50 in his area of the Northeast, but for June, it was a negative $5.38, a loss he pegged at $15,000 for the month for his farm.

Another producer in the Mideast area noted a loss of over $60,000 in component value, which would not be covered in the way expected by the Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) policy he had purchased. The negative PPD loss represents “basis risk”, whereas tools like DRP, forward contracting, even DMC, mitigate “market and margin risk.”

The “markets” did their thing. Demand went up, cheese prices went up, Class III milk contracts gained, but the de-pooling in most Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs) ate up most of the doubled protein value and other component value gains for farms across most of the country, as reflected in a steeply negative “basis”. There’s really no risk management tool for that, and we’ve received correspondence indicating that producers who opted to manage risk, had losses where they thought they would have coverage.

It’s difficult to make sense of it all, especially when FMMO Market Administrators explain all the workings of PPDs in terms of advance pricing, sudden commodity increases that are complicated by advance pricing of Class I, pooling and de-pooling of milk when Class I milk value is lower than the blend price. But these explanations leave out the fact that Congress changed the way the Class I Mover is calculated at the request of NMPF and IDFA in the 2018 Farm Bill, without holding a milk pricing hearing that so many have requested.

This is a big concern going forward. The spreads between the higher Class III price over the Class I Mover are $9.62 for June and $7.75 (estimated) for July.

From July, forward, the lagtime is less of a factor. However, the new way vs. the old way of calculating Class I is a much bigger factor in predicted negative PPDs because as Class III has been rising, Class IV has been falling, widening the divergence.

The final math equation for the Class I Mover is the same as it was: Class I Mover = (Base Skim Milk Price x 0.965) + Butterfat Price x 3.5). What changed in May 2019 is the way the Base Skim Milk Price is determined before it is placed in that calculation. It used to be simply the higher of the two Advance Pricing Factors — Class III or Class IV — that was plugged into that equation as the “Base Skim Milk Price. Now the two Advance Pricing Factors are added together, divided by 2, and 74 cents is added to that to produce the Base Skim Milk Price for the final equation above.

Under the previous way, using the “higher of,” the August Class I Mover would have been $24.36 — $4.58 higher than the $19.78 Class I Mover announced on July 22 for August. Also, under the previous method, July’s Class I Mover would have been $19.13 — $2.57 higher than the announced July Class I Mover at $16.56.

These new concerns in FMMO pricing bring new variables into how producers manage risk, so the market value that did not make it into milk checks or risk management tools cannot be blamed completely on Covid-19 pandemic disruptions. A convergence of factors have created a situation where the mechanics of risk management like Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) and Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) — as well as forward contracting — may not work as intended for all producers in all regions in a time of disrupted markets and extreme risk, with fairly recent changes to certain milk pricing formulas.

This market disruption, and the fallout in negative PPDs, should signal to USDA and the Congress that a National Hearing on Milk Pricing is overdue. Piecemeal changes have consequences. The de-pooling exacerbates the situation. In June, de-pooling contributed to removing hundreds of millions of dollars of value from milk checks across all Federal Orders. As one producer asked, who gets that money? The answer: It depends.

First, if the end-product “market” value found was paid to the plant or cooperative or handler, and if the handler consequently de-pooled the milk and didn’t pass that value back to the farms voluntarily or contractually, then we know who has the money. If the “market” did not pay what we see in the USDA end-product pricing or on the CME spot market and futures markets, then it’s not real money.

Given the wide range in milk check data with most of the nation coming in around $5 to $7 lower than the Upper Midwest — and a $4 range in FMMO uniform prices to begin with — it’s obvious the “market” is paying. But the calculations are not passing through to milk checks, except in the Upper Midwest Order 30 where 50% of pooled milk receipts were utilized as Class III milk, even though Class III volume reductions suggest significant de-pooling occurred.

Let’s look at preliminary data from Farmshine readers around the country (Table 2 above).

So far, over 150 Farmshine readers from six of the 11 FMMOs have provided milk check data. Since only a couple responses were received from California, we did not do any math for FMMO 51 yet, until we receive more data. At this writing, we have not received any milk check data from Orders 6 (Florida), 126 (Texas and New Mexico), 124 (Arizona) and 131 (Oregon and Washington).

What is evident in the preliminary review is the significant gap between the highest and lowest gross and net prices paid.

For each of the six FMMOs — where we had enough data to do some math — we see the difference of $7 between the FMMO with the highest average gross price paid (before deductions) of $20.81 in the Upper Midwest (FMMO 30) and the lowest average gross price paid of $13.77 in the Central Order (FMMO 32). When looking at the range of price data, the spread is $8 between some check data as low as $13.02 gross pay price in Pennsylvania to $21.05 in Minnesota.

The other FMMO average data fall into place $4 to $6 below the Upper Midwest with gross pay price averaging between $14.97 and $16.15 before deductions.

On the net mailbox price (after deductions), the difference is almost $7 between the highest mailbox average of $19.74 for FMMO 30 and the lowest average of $12.97 for FMMO 32. Average net mailbox price for FMMOs 1, 33, 5, and 7 trail FMMO 30 by a difference of $5 to $6. (See Table 2.)

Respondents for each of the FMMOs so far are a mix of mostly co-op members, but also some independent shippers, and a range of cooperatives — national and regional — are represented in the data.

In the Upper Midwest FMMO 30 for June, where PPD was least negative and Class III milk utilization was the highest (50%), the Uniform price already reflected the smallest negative PPD in the $3s compared to negative $5s and $7s everywhere else. At the same time, reports indicate the cheese plants and co-ops in that region even shared some of that smaller loss, knocking it back into the negative $2’s.

While large penalties for overbase milk still remain part of the pricing equation, it was not a major factor for most producers in June, perhaps because producers are reducing production as well as dumping, donating or utilizing overbase milk differently to avoid these penalties. This process is continuing into July. In the Northeast and Midatlantic region, reports of milk dumping were confirmed in July. Mostly this was due to producers wanting to avoid overbase penalties, but at least one report involved temporary “plant equipment issues”.

Of the milk check data shared with Farmshine, most showed producers were shipping 93 to 99% of their base for June. But some data includes producers seeing significant assessments on small amounts of overbase milk by both smaller regional cooperatives and larger national footprint cooperatives — except in the Upper Midwest. Also, in pockets of the Southeast, check data show some penalties were waived as a base / overbase blend was shown on checks, but then in another spot, the stub reported “revenues available to pay” a better price. In those instances, it appears the overbase penalty was eliminated and market adjustments reduced, which added 30 to 50 cents to what the location blend would have been.

Elsewhere, producers overbase deductions ranged $1.50 to $6.40.

Another variable was “market adjustments”. No “covid” deductions were seen in June check data, however, many had “market adjustments” deducted to the tune of 13 to 24 cents. In a few cases, the “market adjustment” was described in an earlier letter stating that the “covid” deduction for co-op costs incurred in April and May was being spread out evenly over several months forward.

The averages for the Northeast and Mideast FMMOs belie the wide range in prices. For Pennsylvania, alone, the range in gross pay prices before deductions was more than $4.00/cwt.  Even after adjusting for butterfat, the range was $3.50. The lowest net mailbox prices submitted by anyone in any FMMO came from Pennsylvania producers, with instances as low as $11.20/cwt mailbox for June. Overbase penalties and market adjustment deductions contributed to these lower nets.

In Pennsylvania, the Pa. Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) over-order premium (OOP) was set large for June, but was a small factor on most milk checks. It does appear that the western half of the state in Order 33 received at least some OOP benefit to make up for taking a more significant beating from negative PPDs.

Very few producer milk checks showed numbers other than zero in the PMMB OOP line item. However for Pennsylvania producers shipping directly to some Pennsylvania bottlers in the Mideast order, the benefit was $1.25 to $2.00/cwt listed as a line item and serving to simply pull them up closer to where the Northeast blend price sat. Remember, negative PPDs in the Mideast Order, which includes western Pa., were in the $7s. Negative PPDs in the Northeast Order, which includes eastern Pa., were in the $5s.

Meanwhile, out-of-state bottlers buying Pennsylvania milk and selling into the Pennsylvania minimum retail price market passed on about 10% of this floor-setting OOP in June at about 30 to 50 cents.

June’s PMMB OOP was over $4 per cwt because $3.68 was added to the normal $1 to make the difference between the USDA Class I Mover and a temporary $15 Class I floor. The PMMB used the OOP to temporarily accomplish this, but then became an island as USDA did not follow suit. The USDA had canceled a hearing requested by cooperatives petitioning it do the same nationally.

Looking at the milk check data we have received, it is obvious that USDA would have done well to have followed PMMB’s lead — as they were petitioned to do in April — to set a temporary Class I Mover floor at $15 through August.

At the time that the PMMB took its action, USDA AMS Dairy Programs had indicated in correspondence shared with Farmshine that a date was set to meet with petitioners to hear evidence for a national temporary Class I floor.

But, when word got out, certain dairy economists, such as at the University of Minnesota, along with Minnesota Milk Producers and other entities, including Walmart, protested that this idea of a temporary Class I Mover floor would “decouple” Class I milk and be unfair to the Upper Midwest where Class I utilization is low. Mainly, they complained that a move to stabilize Class I would “disrupt” milk markets and affect the Dairy Margin Coverage.

Well, folks, that disruption happened anyway — in reverse.

What we have seen, in the absence of a Class I floor, is total disruption and instability due to the inherent lagtime in Class I pricing reflecting market trends, and additional severity because of how the Class I Mover calculation was changed by Congress, with no hearing at all, just placed in the 2018 Farm Bill at the direction of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).

The so-called “markets” have not worked for any of the FMMO’s dairy producers except for the Upper Midwest where the complaints over flooring the Class I Mover arose.

The change in the calculation of the Class I Mover in the 2018 Farm Bill was implemented one year ago in May 2019. By using an average instead of the “higher of” to determine a base value for components or fat/skim, the Class I Mover no longer moves in concert with the highest value of components or fat/skim.

This is a problem because there is no way to assess market value on Class I in an of itself. Class I beverage milk is a designated loss-leader by the 800-lb retailer-processor gorillas like Walmart and Kroger. Also, in a couple states, the retail milk price is regulated to some degree.

Class I’s new “averaging” method is contributing to the removal of hundreds of millions of dollars from Federal Order pools through de-pooling.

It’s hard to predict what “reality” or “alternate reality” the USDA NASS All Milk price and Dairy Margin Coverage milk margin will reflect when they are announced on July 31.

This is a serious problem, given the widening divergence between Classes III and IV on the futures markets. This divergence is a warning that the current four-class system should be re-evaluated. When two manufacturing classes for stored products can be averaged to produce the basis of value for fresh products and beverages, it’s easy to see how large entities in the marketplace can make decisions that affect imports, storage, supply and demand to move one side of an “averaging” equation and create lopsided returns outside of FMMO pools. If milk moved to its highest value use and components were valued on multiple cross-class markets, a stable Class I base could be established as one piece of an overall value mix with less incentive to de-pool lopsided value.

For example, the July Class III contract stood at $24.41 on the futures markets as of July 27 — now $10.76 higher than the Class IV contract at $13.65. August Class III stands at $22.11, $8.39 higher than the Class IV contract at $13.72. September Class III, at $20.49, is $6.34 higher than the $14.15 Class IV contract. October Class III, at $18.90, is $4.51 higher than Class IV at $14.39. November Class III, at $17.53, is $2.95 higher than Class IV at $14.58. The gap narrows for December, but as of July 27, the difference between the two classes is still more than the $1.48 ‘magic number’ with December Class III at $16.60, $1.81 higher than Class IV at $14.79.

Creating even more value loss in every FMMO in June — whether priced by multiple components or fat/skim — is the amount of Class III milk that was de-pooled. Total volume pooled across all Federal Orders was 9.5 billion pounds in June, down 36% from a year ago and down 28% from May (May 2020 was down 13% from year ago).

While June milk production was reported on July 21 at 0.5% above year ago, milk dumpage in June was down considerably in terms of what showed up on FMMO pools. We know farms are dumping and diverting to avoid overbase penalties, but the pooled “other use” milk, including dumpage and animal feed, was down by 44% compared with a year ago in June. The only Federal Order to have more “other use” milk in June than in May was the Appalachian Order 5, and Central Order 32.

Table1_YTD_MilkDumped(Bunting)rTable 1 (above) shows the “other use / milk dumpage” pooling data. What is mind-boggling is that year-to-date milk dumped totals at 566.7 million pounds for just the first 6 months of 2020, is 125 to 150 million pounds greater than the 12-month annual totals for each of the past five years.

Dairy producers wishing to submit June milk check data as well as next month’s milk check data for July to broaden this survey geographically, please send: Gross price, net mailbox price, PPD, butterfat and protein, other deductions (especially ‘market adjustment’ deductions), overbase penalties if applicable, along with your location or the FMMO in which your milk is marketed and information stating whether you market with a cooperative or as an independent. There is no need to provide your name or your specific co-op or plant affiliation unless you choose to include that.

Please consider emailing me at agrite2011@gmail.com or text/call 717.587.3706. All information is aggregated anonymously by state, region and FMMO.

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Farmers wonder what happened? June PPDs ugly, pool volume down 36%

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By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 17, 2020

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — The negative PPDs are turning out to be whoppers as expected for June, and experts say the situation will repeat in July. In fact, by the looks of the milk futures markets, the wide spread between Class III and IV is projected to remain above the magic number of $1.48/cwt. through at least September and quite possibly through the end of the year.

That’s the big news. This divergence is messing with PPDs more than normal and changing the ‘basis’ for producers in a way that defies most risk management tools. While the Upper Midwest milk checks reflected some of the marketplace rally, other regions fell quite flat. The range in uniform prices among FMMO’s is $4 from the $13s in in California, the Southwest and Mideast (Ohio, western PA, Indiana, Michigan) to $15s in Northeast, Southeast, Appalachia to $16s in Florida and the highest uniform price in the $17s for the Upper Midwest.

In fact, depending what Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) you are in, and depending upon how much of that higher Class III “marketplace” value makes it into payments by plants to co-ops and producers, this could alter how “real” the Dairy Margin Coverage margin is, as well as the workings of Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) program insurance and other risk management options that play off Class III but settle out on an “All Milk” price USDA will calculate for June at the end of July.

Producers who purchased DRP policies and based them on components to stabilize their risk in markets that utilize a blend of classes, are realizing an indemnity they expected to receive as protein doubled from May to June is now deflated to a smaller number due to negative ‘basis’.

Experts admit —  There’s no good way to manage PPD risk (or as it’s referred to in the skim/fat Orders of the South “revenues available to pay”). Interestingly, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), at its member risk management website, is touting it has “strategies” for members to “mitigate future negative PPD risk”.

(Read to the end to learn how to participate in the Farmshine Milk Market Moos milk check survey on this issue.)

So, what changed? Other than a pandemic disrupting things.

A big change is the new way USDA calculates the Class I Mover. This was implemented in May 2019 and is currently adding on to the largeness of the inverse relationship between Class III and the uniform price in multiple component pricing orders.

In fat/skim orders of the South, producers are seeing one price on their check but then “revenues available” to pay a different price. In some cases, the “revenues available” is reference to dispensing with “overbase penalties” in June because revenues were available to pay a better price on that milk.

There are no PPDs in the four FMMOs still pricing on a fat/skim basis. But those Orders are seeing a flat-out reduction in their uniform price as announced for Florida and the Southeast FMMOs being lower than May! Meanwhile the Appalachian Order gained just 13 cents over May. (See Table I above.)

During the formation of the 2018 Farm Bill, National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) agreed on this new way to price Class I so that Class I processors could find “stability” in their costs by forward pricing without having to “guess” which manufacturing class price contract would be the “higher of.”

Farm Bureau remained neutral at the time that this was going through, and their analysis showed, historically, this new way leveled out over time for dairy producers. In fact, supporters stated that the stability of averaging Class III and IV to make the Class I Mover offered stability in input costs to milk bottlers so they could forward price, which in turn would offer stability to farmers by keeping bottlers in a position of strength to invest for the future. These are the reasons we heard, and it wasn’t much debated at the time.

No hearings were held by USDA on this major change in Federal Order pricing for the one and only class that is actually regulated. It was done in the Farm Bill, legislatively, because cooperatives and processors agreed it was what they both wanted. (More information next week on what factors Covid and non-Covid-related that are contributing to these diverse trends between Class III and IV.)

Under the current method, instead of using advance pricing factors from the “higher of” Class III or IV to calculate the Class I Mover, the two classes are averaged together and 74 cents is arbitrarily added.

The reason this is such a big issue right now, and likely for months to come, is the size of the spread. Rapidly rising block Cheddar — which hit another record of $3.00 per pound on the CME spot market early this week – keep pushing the AMS end-product pricing higher, more than doubling the value of protein between May and June and pushing Class III milk futures further into the $20s.

In fact, Class III milk futures settled Tues., July 14 at $24.34 for July, $23.09 August, $20.23 September, $18.40 October, $17.44 November and $16.35 December. Meanwhile those months for Class IV milk futures settled Tuesday at $14.03 for July, $14.51 August, $14.85 September, $15.07 October, $15.31 November and $15.53 December. Not until December is the spread within the $1.48/cwt range where the new way of averaging the two classes returns from being so out of kilter to Class III.

Remember, these negative PPDs are the result of Class III being larger than the uniform blend price, and the large amount of depooling that resulted keeps that higher value from being shared in the pool. Class III handlers are accustomed to taking a draw, not writing a check, and there’s no requirement to be pooled unless a plant is a pool supplier or wants to stay qualified for the next month in most FMMOs.

A Farmshine article two weeks ago explained these price relationships in more detail.

Now the numbers are coming in. The recently announced uniform prices and PPDs range from nearly $4 to near $8 — just as leading dairy economists had estimated.

The least negative was the Upper Midwest FMMO 30, at minus-$3.81, where 50% of the milk utilization was Class III, and the uniform price gained a whopping $4.92 at $17.23 for June. In fact, producers in Wisconsin and Minnesota report $20 milk checks for June.

The most negative PPD was minus-$7.91 in California, where less than half of one percent of the milk utilization was Class III, and the uniform price gained just $1.18 at $13.13 for June.

The Southwest FMMO 126 wasn’t far from that at minus-$7.62 with a uniform price announced at $13.42 — up 41 cents from May.

In the Northeast FMMO One had a minus-$5.38 average marketwide PPD, but the uniform price gained $2.19 over May at $15.66 with 18.5% Class III milk utilization.

The Mideast Order PPD is minus-$7.05, and the uniform price gained $1.26 at $13.99 with just over 9% Class III utilization.

In the southern FMMOs, pricing is still on a fat/skim basis, not multiple components, but the inverse relationship of the Class I Mover to Class III pricing is keeping June uniform prices flat or lower compared with May. The Southeast FMMO 7 saw a penny decline in the uniform price to $15.38 in June, and Florida Order 6 uniform price fell 46 cents from $17.29 in May to $16.83 for June. The Appalachian FMMO 5 gained just 13 cents at $15.27 for June.

Nationwide, just over 9.5 billion pounds of milk was pooled across all Federal Orders in June, down 36% from 14.4 billion pounds a year ago and down 28% from the 13.2 billion pounds last month.

May milk production was down 1.5% compared with a year ago, but the pooling volume nationwide was already 13% lower than a year ago in May.

USDA confirms that handlers making just Class II, III or IV products are not required to pool the milk, and therefore, due to “expected price relationships,” some handlers decided to not pool some of their milk receipts in May, and most definitely elected not to pool in June.

“Only Class I handlers are required to pool all of their milk receipts no matter how it was used,” USDA Dairy Programs explained in an email response to Farmshine this week.

In Table I are the marketwide FMMO data for June from Market Administrator announcements on different dates over the past several days. Comparing Class III volumes reported to month ago and year ago, an estimated 45 to 94% of Class III milk was depooled in various FMMOs, with the exceptions of Arizona and the Pacific Northwest where depooling was less of a factor.

Looking at the Northeast FMMO, alone, the estimated 45% less Class III volume in the pool in June vs. May, kept just over $110 million in collective component value out of the Northeast pool.

The question is, since USDA confirms that money is “in the marketplace”, will that “marketplace money” make it to farm-level milk checks, 13th checks, reduced retains? And will the “Covid assessments” and “marketing or balancing fees” and “overbase penalties” be adjusted or eliminated in June?

Others wonder how this will affect the All Milk price for June as calculated by USDA NASS at the end of July. Will the erraticness of how this “value in the marketplace” could be handled make winners and losers in terms of the Dairy Margin Coverage? How will this situation translate to those margins as a national average?

USDA AMS Dairy Programs defined the NASS All Milk price in an email as follows: “The NASS U.S. All Milk Price is a measurement of what plants paid the non-members and cooperatives for milk delivered to the plant before deduction for hauling, and this includes quality, quantity and other premiums and is at test. The NASS price should include the amount paid for the “not pooled milk.”

USDA explained that, “The blend price (Statistical Uniform Price, or SUP) is a weighted average of the uses of milk that was pooled for the marketing period (month).  If some ‘higher value’ use milk is not in the ‘pool’, then the weighted average price will be lower.”

However, the USDA response also points out that, “It is important to note that the Class III money still exists in the marketplace.  It is just that manufacturing handlers are not required to share that money through the regulated pool.”

So, will it be shared at the producer level outside of the pool? From the looks of a few June milk check settlements that have been reported to Farmshine on the morning of July 15, it’s not looking like the higher Class III value is helping checks shared from the Southeast FMMO at this writing. How will that stack up to a margin that gets figured also looking at the Upper Midwest where the uniform price saw almost a $5 gain?

We’ll look at that more closely next week.

Dairy producers who want to participate in my Milk Market Moos survey of June milk checks, please email, call or text your June milk price, fat test and PPD, and the list of deduct line items, especially any “Covid-deducts,” and include any overbase penalties. Also, provide your location or in what FMMO your milk is marketed. All the information will be anonymously aggregated. Email agrite2011@gmail.com or call or text 717.587.3706.

The Jersey Cattle Association is doing a similar June milk check survey sampling across the country.

This is a big topic when risk management is based largely on components and Class III, even though Class III use is not regulated unless processors want it to be, and certainly not in a pricing scheme that no longer prices the higher of two divergent manufacturing price trends into the only truly regulated class — Class I fluid milk. 

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Understanding these negative PPDs, massive depooling; ‘New’ Class I calculation doubles the rub

 

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Large negative PPDs, Class III depooling and buyers reblending the milk price paid to farmers in June and July could be with us through August and even September because of how wide the divergence is between the Class III and Class IV prices, based on what the CME futures markets are showing. This divergence lowers all other classes in the pool (I, II and IV), especially now with the new “averaging” method of calculating each month’s Class I Mover in effect since May of 2019.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 3, 2020

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. – Dairy producers seek to understand record-large negative PPDs (Producer Price Differentials) for June milk, meaning the the significant gains made in cheese markets and and Class III milk price are not making it to milk checks, especially for Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs) that are not predominantly cheese markets. (See FMMO data here

The extent of these negative PPDs – ranging from -$3.00 to -$8.00 per hundredweight (cwt) – has several factors, including the new way the Class I Mover is calculated since the 2018 Farm Bill changed it from the “higher of” Class III or IV pricing factors to an average of the two with an arbitrary 74-cent add-on. (See related July 28 story on revealing milk check data here)

“Expect historically large negative PPDs in Multiple Component markets for June and July,” writes Calvin Covington, retired breed association executive secretary and milk cooperative CEO, in an email interview with Farmshine this week.

He also estimates the volume of milk depooled in June will set a record (it did), further limiting how much of the past six weeks of higher dairy product prices will even make it into their milk checks.

Covington confirms Class III milk was already being depooled in May. As reported in last week’s Farmshine, we calculated the volume of milk pooled across all Federal Orders in May was already 13% below year ago levels.  For June, the depooling volume will be much more significant, in fact it is likely to be enormous.

“There is little economical reason to pool any Class III milk in June,” Covington asserts. “The only Class III milk that will be pooled in June is Class III milk going to a pool plant, and to meet any requirements to keep milk pooled in July.”

In fact, if buyers pooled Class III milk on Federal Orders in June, they would have to write a check to the settlement fund (instead of taking a draw from the fund as they do in normal conditions when the Class I bottlers are writing that check).

This is because the Class III price for June was announced this week at $21.04 – nearly $10 per cwt higher than the Class I Mover for June, which was set at $11.42 back in the beginning of May. The June Class I Mover is the lowest since the Great Recession while the June Class III price is the highest since 2014 — both now occurring in the same pooling month!

The reasons for the steep negative PPDs producers in Multiple Component Pricing (MCP) FMMOs will see for June milk, says Covington, are the high Class III price ($21.04) vs. Class IV ($12.90) and Class II ($12.99), the Class I Mover advanced pricing lag at $11.42, and the new method of calculating the Class I Mover, especially for July.

“In skim-butterfat priced markets – the Southeast Orders – blend prices will be lower than the Class III price,” Covington adds.

He explains that the PPD is paid on a hundredweight (cwt) basis, and it impacts all milk the same regardless of milk components.

“High component herds, especially in Multiple Component markets, see larger variation in milk prices,” Covington explains. “It is all due to arithmetic. Milk is paid on fat and protein. The more fat and protein in the milk, the greater the price change when fat and protein prices change.”

Covington spoke at World Dairy Expo last fall about the makeup of the milk check, and all of the factors that go into it. He reminds producers that only regulated plants are required to pay minimum class prices. Unregulated non-Class I plants choose to be associated with the pool so they can draw from it to pay a blend price to their farmers.

Now that the price for milk used to make cheese is so much higher than the price for milk used as a beverage or to make yogurt, ice cream, dips, butter, powder and all other products —  cheese plants are free to disassociate themselves from the FMMO pool, and there is no regulation stating they must pay their producers even the minimum announced Class III price for components.

Under the current system, when the Class III price rises quickly to overshadow the previously-set Class I Mover, there’s no reason for those Class III plants to pool the milk, unless they want to remain “qualified” to participate in the pool (draw) in the following month.

Covington observes that the upside-down pricing and negative PPDs will be with us at least through July. Dairy economists Mark Stephenson, University of Wisconsin and Andrew Novakovic, Cornell, noted in a recent Dairy Markets and Policy brief that this situation of negative PPDs, Class III depooling and buyers reblending the price paid to farmers could be with us through August and even September because of how wide the divergence is between the Class III and Class IV price via the CME futures markets.

This divergence lowers all other classes in the pool (I, II and IV), especially now with the new “averaging” method of calculating each month’s Class I Mover in effect since May of 2019.

Covington notes that it all boils down to math. The PPD is simply the difference between a Federal Order’s revenue available for producer payment (Class I, II, III and IV combined), minus the payment to producers at the Class III price based on components.

When Class III components are higher than the available revenue in the pool, the PPD is negative. When the Class III milk is depooled in that scenario, the funds aren’t there to pay the value.

“Factors impacting the size of the PPD, positive or negative,” he says, “are Class III price relative to the other class prices, volume of Class III milk pooled and an Order’s Class I price and usage.”

The primary factor in June’s negative PPDs is the extreme rapid increase in the Class III milk price. The rising cheese markets and Class III milk futures were mostly translated into the June Class III price because it was based on four weeks of June cheese sales.

The Class I Mover, on the other hand, was calculated six weeks earlier based on what the trade was doing at the end of April and beginning of May.

In the Covid-19 market-disrupted environment this is like two different world’s colliding based on timing and calculations.

Add to this the fact that Class IV and Class II prices saw muted increases during June compared to Class III’s large and abrupt increase, and what we are left with is the scenario where Class III beats all other classes by $7 to $10 in the same pooling month.

FMMOs with larger utilization of Classes I, II and IV will not see much boost from the uptrending cheese markets in their June blend price.

FMMO’s with large Class III utilization would see that boost. But depooling, reblending and assessments will all play further roles in how even those mailbox milk checks look once June milk is paid for.

Negative PPDs are not new. Dairy producers have experienced negative PPDs on milk checks in the past. Seeing a negative number in an uptrending milk market always brings questions and frustration. In fact, the November 2019 through January 2020 period in several of the past five years produced negative PPDs.

Last November, for example, the seven Multiple Component Pricing FMMOs saw a negative PPD averaging -$2 and ranging from just under -$1 to over -$3.

That pales in comparison to the negative PPDs producers will see for June, July and potentially August or September of 2020. Expect to see PPDs that are double, even triple, what was seen last November.

By now, most dairy farmers understand that a rapidly rising cheese market and corresponding Class III milk price presents the key factor putting PPDs into negative territory. When this happens, producers are reminded that a rising Class III milk price is still a positive development because it indicates milk markets are improving.

But in what some are calling a “whipsaw market” where prices turn abruptly in unexpected directions due to an unforeseen disruption like Covid-19, it’s useful to look at the other factors, for the long term.

First, when Class III milk’s component value is higher than the value of all the classes combined, the result is a negative PPD because after the Class III component values are paid, there is nothing left in the pool for the PPD draw. When the Class III milk is depooled, then that value is not available either.

When the blend price is higher than the Class III price, which is the norm, those Class III plants take a draw. When the reverse is true, they would technically owe the pool.

What sets this up against a huge market-disrupting event like Covid-19 is the lag-time between the calculation of the Class I Mover based on two weeks of trade and calculated six weeks in advance compared with the calculation of the manufacturing class prices based on the current month’s market conditions weighted over four weeks.

Even in those prices, there is a one to two week lag between what happens on the CME daily spot market and its translation to the weekly USDA National Dairy Product Sales Report, on which the class and component prices are based. There is no daily reporting of actual trade, actual sales of the four main dairy commodities, just weekly surveys that are published the following week.

On the flip-side, for April, the Class I Mover was set at $16.64 based on market conditions (advance pricing factors) during the first two weeks of March, before the Covid-shutdown. The Class III price came to $13.07 for April based on the economic shutdown affecting foodservice demand while retailers had a tough time keeping dairy products in stock.

With Class I sales rising dramatically in April, and the Class I Mover sitting $3.57 higher than Class III and $5.24 higher than Class IV – there was incentive to pool everything, even the displaced milk as the industry adjusted to an unforeseeable event and the Class I Mover stood well above all other classes, especially the dumped milk that was pooled at Class IV value.

Thus, April set a record the amount of ‘other use / dumpage’ milk as 350 million pounds of displaced milk was pooled at the lowest class price across all FMMOs, nearly 10-times the amount that is normally pooled as ‘other use / dumpage’.

Now, that lag-time produces an opposite situation for June and July, and there is another wrinkle in the FMMO fabric – the new method for calculating the Class I Mover doubles the rub.

As a result of changes made in the 2018 Farm Bill, the Class I mover is now established by averaging Class III and Class IV and then adding 74 cents to that average. It used to be calculated using the higher of Class III or Class IV. In this case, that would have made a difference as Class III and IV have significantly diverged.

The calculation change for the Class I Mover was made to help processors hedge their future milk costs on the futures markets without having to guess which futures contract to use – Class III or IV. This was said to be something that would provide stability for Class I producers by stabilizing pricing for Class I processors. However, in these very unstable ‘whipsaw market’ times, the rub on producer milk checks will sting.

When it was proposed in 2017, American Farm Bureau Federation studied this method and documented little change to the net result for dairy producers when multiple years of pricing were averaged together and evaluated. In fact, when the new method went into place, there were several months where the average-plus-74-cents made the Class I Mover higher than it would have been under the old “higher of” method.

Not so in a volatile market with a time-lag involved.

These issues of negative PPD affect disproportionately the Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMOs) that have more Class I and IV utilization. FMMOs with small Class I utilization and large Class III utilization are relatively untouched as those blend prices would reflect mainly the much higher Class III cheese milk component value. But with depooling and reblending, those checks may also be impacted.

Looking ahead to July, the Class I Mover was already announced at $16.56, based on the advance pricing factors from the first two weeks of June. While July’s cheese trade is yet to be seen, the July Class III contract on the CME futures market stood at $22.85 at this writing on July 1st, which is $6.29 per cwt higher than the already set Class I Mover for July.

Even though the July Class I Mover stands $5.14 per cwt above the June Class I Mover, not even July’s Class I had the benefit of the full advance in June cheese trade because it was based on just the first two weeks of the June rally.

According to John Newton American Farm Bureau chief economist , there is currently, no mechanism to prevent negative PPDs. Newton writes in a recent ‘market intel’ piece:

“Historically, negative PPDs occur less than 15% of the time. Methods to prevent or mitigate negative PPDs  — such as eliminating the advanced pricing component, reconsidering the higher-of pricing formula (but with forward contracting of Class I milk), requiring mandatory pooling of milk in all Classes or consideration of decoupling the Class I milk from the price of manufactured milk products  – could be explored.”

UPDATE: Negative PPDs will be here for a while. Looking at these price spreads does not bode well for the continued inverted relationship between Class III and the Class I Mover — or what milk market analysts call “unorthodox pricing arrangements” — that will lead to continued negative PPDs and de-pooling of the higher Class III value milk from Federal Milk Marketing Order pools. In fact, the discussion of this issue has many twists and turns, a few questions have been forwarded to USDA Dairy Programs for some explanations, and June pooling data and blend price / PPD information is anticipated after the 14th.

Here’s the problem. Even when the ‘advanced pricing’ method gets caught up, the real problem is the way the Mover is now calculated. The 2018 Farm Bill made a huge change without a USDA administrative hearing and without a producer (bloc) vote.

Fluid milk processors wanted stability. They wanted to be able to forward-contract their milk costs and not have to deliberate over which futures contract to use — Class III or IV — since the Class I Mover used to be based on the “higher of” the two classes. Now, the futures markets are showing us that the spread between Class III and IV is going to be well above $1.48/cwt through November. That’s the significant number because the new Class I Mover method is calculated by averaging Class III and IV and adding 74 cents to that average. Once the III / IV spread hits $1.48/cwt, the 74 cents no
longer covers the difference.

Once we get to 2021, the spread narrows through those months, according to what the futures show now, but the Class III / IV spread looked reasonable and well within that $1.48/cwt for this current period back when viewed on the futures markets six months ago. If Congress can make a big change like this to Federal Order pricing formulas based on NMPF and IDFA agreeing on such while the Farm Bureau took a neutral position
— other than to review it and show it to be a wash when averaged over time — why can’t the Congress require a USDA National Hearing on milk pricing with Report to Congress?

Previous Farm Bills had such language, but the National Hearing “cost” was never funded. Now, the idea of a National Hearing on milk pricing, and a producer vote on Federal Orders, is seldom discussed. What we see from this Class I Mover example that a big changes can be made and implemented quite readily at the legislative level — no hearing or vote required — as long as the cooperative processors and proprietary processors agree on the change in advance. If milk is substantially depooled to keep higher end product values in hand, hopefully through the reblending process, plants and cooperatives will pay the marketplace value to dairy farmers, given the sacrifices producers have made to bring production into line with demand.

FYI: The Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) successfully “decoupled” and stabilized the Class I milk price for two months by setting a Class I floor of $15 through the state’s over-order premium authority. The Federal Milk Marketing Orders were going to have a national hearing on this in April, but chose not to after economists and organizations in the Upper Midwest cheese region complained. The PMMB action was limited only to Pennsylvania, so for two months (the limit of the Order), when the Class I beverage milk price for milk produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania fell below $15, the current over-order premium of around $1.00 per cwt was expanded automatically to bring the price back up to $15 for May-July 2020 for this very reason.

Trouble is, with the FMMOs not considering a similar move, this PA ‘premium’ only pertains to bottling plants paying milk suppliers for milk produced on PA farms (and they are free to take milk from other farms outside of PA). This price was built into the PA minimum retail milk price for May and June, but retailers, processors and cooperatives are not required to pass these state-mandated premium funds paid by PA consumers back to PA farms — unless the milk meets all three of these criteria: produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania.

Author’s Opinion: There is one other thing worthy of consideration. A national hearing on milk pricing, period, to look at options, updates, simplification, transparency, daily reporting, producer voting, consolidation, transportation and deductions. Some grassroots groups have been asking for a national hearing with report to Congress for nearly 10 years as there is no other way for farmers to access the FMMO system run by market administrators, and they don’t even get a vote because cooperatives bloc-vote changes on behalf of their members. Previous Farm Bills included language for such a national hearing, but they were never conducted. At some point, the complexities at play here need to be evaluated from both regional and national perspectives in terms of “orderly marketing” and how farm viability and farm and food security in regions are affected and in terms of fulfilling the desire of many consumers wanting fresh, local milk.

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Something different: My public comment on milk marketing rules

My great grandmother grew up milking cows in East Berlin, Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the battle of Gettysburg. She loved to cook. She always smiled. She was seldom cross, but you knew she meant business when she said: “Now, mind!” She was practical and daring. She wore pants before it was fashionable for ladies to do so and pierced her ears when the younger generations were still wearing clip-ons.

Growing up, I heard Sadie Phillips say more than once: “Trust your gut and Be bold!” Today, I have decided to do just that. I am using my blog to carry the public comments I will submit to USDA on the due date Monday, April 13 regarding the FEDERAL MILK MARKETING ORDERS and how they are (or are not) fulfilling their purpose and the effect on small businesses (A Section 610 Review). I’ll get knocked around for this in some circles, I am quite sure. And this is certainly very long for anyone to read. But here it is. Have at it. Or, if you are so inclined after reading it, shoot me a message, note, or thumbs up if you want your name added before I submit officially to USDA on Monday. 

April 11, 2015    

RE: Comments on the Federal Milk Marketing Order Program

Dear Mr. Rex A. Barnes, Associate Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service: 

As a freelance ag journalist and market reporter for the past 30-plus years — as well as having as clients multiple small businesses and dairy farmer organizations for whom I do writing and photography — I get around the country and see firsthand what is happening to milk movement and dairy markets and the effects on dairy farm small businesses — as well as the small businesses that serve the dairy farms and the combination of jobs and revenue they provide to sustain rural economies.

Small businesses in the dairy industry — from the farm, to the service and supplies, to the processing, to the retailing — are in trouble. National Big-Business retailers and processors as well as national Big-Business cooperatives employ stables of milk accountants, attorneys and others in a centralized management model to re-shape the grid of milk movement within and between Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO). Why would any small-business want to innovate in the fluid milk category when the two national Big-Business cooperatives (who work together through regional “marketing arms”) can come in and swoop the earnings away using FMMO rules to do so?

Yes, it has become increasingly difficult for the Northeast and Southeast milksheds to hold on to their Class I utilization in their respective blend prices. It is becoming more difficult to supply local milk beverage needs with a local supply of farm milk as the FMMO program of marketwide pooling actually facilitates the move to centralized models that displace milk from the local small businesses, local farms, local communities.

In effect, national Big-Business cooperatives are locking up regional balancing assets. By owning or controlling with full supply contracts most, if not all, of the dairy manufacturing in a region, independent bottlers and small co-ops find fewer options for selling extra loads to self-balance their local-to-local fluid market.

As a result, we are seeing individuals and small co-ops lose longstanding contracts with local bottlers in pockets all over the Northeast — especially in western Pennsylvania and central New York. In some cases, farms have been forced to sell their cows because they are now without a market at all.

These devastating effects have played out in other regions where small co-ops lost their markets to the Big-Business bottler and national Big-Business cooperative, and now this same effect is playing out in the Northeast — this time facilitated in part by complex FMMO rules.

The current FMMOs provide a needed structure and accountability in the buying and selling of milk. They also have the purpose of stabilizing prices through marketwide pooling. But opinions and analyses differ on whether the classification system — as it exists today — is stabilizing or instead contributes to price volatility. It also seems to detract from a competitive value being paid for manufacturing milk.

None of the above points are the actual defined purpose of the FMMOs. According to USDA, here are the 3 purposes of the FMMOs:

  • To provide for orderly marketing
  • To assure reasonable prices to both dairy farmers and to consumers
  • To assure an adequate supply of wholesome beverage milk to consumers

These 3 purposes (above) are not being realized in the current FMMO system.

  • A signal of DIS-orderly marketing is the fact that dairy farms within the Eastern markets are losing their access to milk marketing.

Milk produced in Georgia — that used to go to Florida — is moving North, while milk from Texas moves into Florida. Milk in Pennsylvania and New York is being displaced from its own milkshed by milk from Michigan. Milk from Illinois moves into Order 5 while milk from Kentucky has recently been trucked all the way to Texas, and vice versa. Truckers talk (more than tongue-in-cheek) about loads passing each other on the highways.

Both the Northeast and the Southeast are being chastised for having dared to increase their production. Farmers in Pennsylvania and New York are blamed for creating their own bottlenecks of surplus milk forcing tankerloads of milk to be dumped. Those ‘bad boy’ Eastern producers should not be growing their dairies. After all, that growth is throwing a monkey wrench into the planning of other regions to grow rapidly with eyes on filling the Eastern milk market deficit, using Class 1 sales in the East to sweeten the blend price paid to dairies that locate or relocate near huge dairy manufacturing plants in the West so those plants can enjoy the cheaper price paid for the milk they use to make dairy products.

  • The fight is on for the shrinking Class I piece of the milk market pie, when in reality other manufacturing uses have more value! In the process, consumers pay MORE for their beverage milk and farmers receive LESS. Farmers receive a shrinking percentage of the consumer retail dollar and a shrinking percentage of Class 1 sales. And yet…. the milk is all the same standard whether it goes in a bottle, in a cheese vat, a butter churn or a yogurt process. It’s all the same quality grade of milk!

As for current milk production growth. The truth is that the Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are not out-growing the needs of their areas. They are located in close proximity to consumer population growth, and their own milk production growth reflects an attempt to merely gain back some of their own formerly lost production that has weakened their infrastructure over the past 14 years for the farms that remain.

  • The Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are both deficit if just the milk within their borders is considered. My home state of Pennsylvania, for example, has lost 55,000 cows since 2002 and 100 million pounds of production.

Furthermore, leaders of states in the Northeast and Southeast milksheds — Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, Kentucky for example — have implemented programs and incentives aimed at GROWING their respective states’ dairy small businesses.

The Governors and State Assemblies in these states have — in effect — said: “Our ag infrastructure of small businesses can’t stay in business here providing local jobs and revenue if you the local small business dairy farms don’t grow back to where you were!”

Now, the very dairy farms these incentives were implemented to uphold are cast aside as the milk is displaced from elsewhere.

The implementation of the Federal Orders has become short-sighted in the quest to simply “Assure an adequate supply of milk to consumers.” But what about the future when the small-business farms and infrastructure here in the East are so diminished they implode?

And look at the cost! Fluid milk consumption is down and we keep jacking up the price with all of these maneuverings. Maybe if a more localized model was respected and cMilkTruck#1onsidered, farmers and consumers would both benefit.

The purpose of the Federal Orders needs to be more considerate of the long term. It should not be declaring the winners and losers, but instead provide a level playing field where the real costs of transportation are factored into the value of local milk to local markets.

The large and powerful market movers take over the grid and push regional suppliers — mainly small businesses that are central to their own communities — to the side. These entities bring milk into the community and then drain local dollars out of the community.

As a result, small dairy businesses are going out of business at an alarming rate. Independent dairy farmers, small and mid-sized, as well as small cooperatives, are getting notices that they are being dropped by local bottlers in my home state of Pennsylvania and north into New York and in Ohio. Young Plain-Sect farmers are finding out in the Southeast they can’t just start milking cows like their fathers did before them. There is no market, they are told, even though the Southeast is a milk deficit area. The Northeast is as well.

The small regional bottlers are being squeezed by the large national co-ops who own or control the balancing assets (through both ownership and contracts) within the Northeast, and Southeast.

So, when milk from members of the national Big-Business co-op is produced in the rapid (double-digit) growth areas of Michigan and Texas, for example, that milk takes precedence at the national co-op-owned and controlled balancing assets in the Northeast and Southeast — effectively pushing the local small business independent shippers and small regional co-ops out of the bottling plants and into situations where they don’t have a market for their milk.

The Walmartization of food retailing has infiltrated its way to the farm-level because local small businesses have limited access to the dairy product processing plants where they once sold extra loads at a discount in order to balance the fluctuations of the fluid milk market. The set make allowance that is built into the manufacturing class milk prices also encourages large single-product plants versus a market-savvy and nimble processing class that makes for the market.

In Pennsylvania, some bottlers are working together with local food banks to balance the ups and downs of the fluid market so they can keep their longtime shippers instead of giving them up to the national Big-Business co-ops who in turn broker the milk back to the plants it went to in the first place.

TIE-STALL-FILE-PHOTO

What do the Federal Orders bring to this mix or — should I say — mess?

First, It is currently too easy to move milk and get paid more for moving it the farthest!

As a result, dairy manufacturing plants are being built where there are not many cows. “If you build it, they will come.” But then they will also send their milk back East to get that juicy Class I utilization to boost their blend price and keep the cost of milk down for the large new manufacturing plants.

The small businesses of the eastern region need a method by which to have the local-ness of their milk count for something in this equation!! If the government is going to be so involved, then it needs to look at the big picture.

Currently, not enough incentive is built into the FMMO structure to give local-supply-arrangements and advantage in the fresh fluid milk beverage market based on the fact that milk flows in smaller circles and does not have to move so far.

While I am not an expert on how all of the pieces of the FMMO came to be, I do know that some of the fixes have created new and worsening problems.

My ask of the USDA AMS — as a small business and as a consumer — is 3-fold:

1) Please extend the comment period to allow for more time to comment. Dairy producers are waking up to some disturbing activity in the Eastern markets. More is becoming known about the current failures of the Federal Orders to uphold their intended purpose! Dairy farms — in increments of half-dozen to a dozen at a time — are getting notices RIGHT NOW that they must find another market or sell out their cows, their investment, their vocation, their family-living, their heritage.

More and more of these producers losing their markets are the highest quality milk producers! Their only fault is they are small businesses (40 to 1000 cows) or part of a small co-op (8 to 12 producers). A large iron fist is coming down in the eastern markets and blaming the bloodbath of farms forced to shut down, dump milk, and go out of business on “too much milk” in the East.

All the while, milk from Michigan in the north and Texas in the south is displacing local eastern milk in the balancing assets of the two large national-and-centralized co-ops that work together. Members first, locals last.

2) Before considering the addition of California to the current FMMO system, please hold national hearings to first evaluate and devise a new pricing formula. Consider basing it on 2-classes of milk: fluid and manufacturing as well as component values based on an array of products — and evaluate removal of the “set” make allowance. This could facilitate competition among various entities buying milk for a variety of manufacturing uses — instead of declaring the winners and losers via set make allowances that encourage large single-product plants that are not nimble nor responsive to changing market conditions.

This could also cut down on some of the gaming we see among balancing assets and lead to more actual marketing of dairy milk products rather than large output of products the market may or may not want because the set make-allowance assures a margin where pure scale is the key to profit and efficiency.

An example of this is the difference between skim milk powder – a uniform product with a standardized protein content – vs. nonfat dry milk (on which the make allowance for powder is based) which is a lower quality product and not uniform in that the protein percentage falls into a 4-point range. If the market wants SMP for its repeatability in a recipe but the make allowance is based on NFDM, the response in a downtrending market is to make more of the latter because the margin is guaranteed by a set make allowance, which further depresses the market.

3) Re-evaluate the purpose, relationship and actual function of transportation credits, touch-base provisions, diversions and other aspects of how milk is supplied so that a premium resides wherever local milk supplies local markets and wherever the regional infrastructure of dairy farms and businesses is upheld in the movement of milk within a Federal Order. Perhaps instead of using such credits and rules to facilitate the bringing of milk from far away, the fund would be better used to get local milk to local markets.

Local small businesses are being forced out of business rapidly. The Department needs to move quickly to establish a fund where processors pay in what would have been spent to bring the distant milk so those dollars are used in the local community or within the Order to offset the balancing cost of keeping local dairy farms on the rolls.

In short, perhaps it is time to use the Federal Orders for their intended purpose and break up the centralized stranglehold of the two national Big-Business cooperatives working together (even sharing attorney and milk accountant assets) by forcing them to stop painting their milk movements with a centralized broad brush – forcing them to more aptly consider local to local, regional to regional.

It is also worth mentioning here that some shifts in the gap between the USDA “all-milk” price and the “mailbox” price released months later are becoming apparent as the national mailbox price has been higher than the all-milk price while the Southeast, Appalachia, Pennsylvania, and New York mailbox prices are falling further and further behind the all-milk price than ever before. This may have something to do with the 6% reduction in Class I utilization in the Southeast in 2014 and the 4% reduction in Class I utilization in the Northeast in 2014. The national reduction in Class I utilization is 3% by comparison.

This reflects not only the raw milk movement but also the infiltration of packaged milk coming from outside of the Northeast and Southeast milksheds directly onto the shelves of large buyers like Costco and Walmart.

On a personal note — as a former milking employee, 34-year veteran ag journalist in dairy and beef, and an eater of dairy products and drinker of dairy milk in the Northeast — I have this to say about “free markets”…

Some are calling for the abolition of the “archaic Federal Orders.” I would be on that bandwagon in a heartbeat — favoring open markets over the continued use and misuse of rules and structure to supress a region’s own supply of dairy farms, small businesses and infrastructure — if I didn’t think the Federal Orders still have a purpose of accountability and to be a running record for what is happening.

However, if the current problems are not fixed to give local milk, supplied by small businesses a fighting chance, then perhaps the FMMO system should go. We have seen the loss of too many small business in the dairy industry where nationalized Big Business processors and co-ops used FMMO rules to their advantage to take over markets. Without a change in FMMO rules, this will continue and accelerate, and we will see more losses of small dairy businesses that sustain rural communities.

If the current problems are not fixed, small businesses may find they are better off in a totally free market, unencumbered by the structure and rules that are increasingly designed by the national Big Business operators to effectively put them out of business as they increase their own centralized national footprint.

Please do not add California until after the current issues with the FMMOs are fixed to a point where local is rewarded in the formula and small business is respected. Once California is added, it will be much harder to make new changes that benefit local small businesses fighting for survival in the East. Thus, the current areas controlled by FMMOs should have a chance to improve the rules before adding the state that has wanted to be state-regulated for decades and represents almost one-fourth of the total milk production in the U.S.

File-Photo-Abandoned-Tie-Stall

Thank you for your consideration,

 

Sincerely,

Sherry A. Bunting

 

To file your own comments with USDA, click here