Milk solids seen as foundation for optimism in 2022

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, December 24, 2021

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. — “Milk pricing is backward, but look forward, and focus on components,” said Dr. Normand St-Pierre of Perdue Agribusiness speaking at Homestead Nutrition’s December Dairy Seminar in New Holland, Pennsylvania, where 200 dairy farmers heard from experts about the markets and the all-important goals of modifying milk price by improving components, and improving the milk margin by feeding healthy cows.

St-Pierre urged producers to be smart as they look at their costs — to not cut costs that sacrifice early lactation milk yield. He also pointed out how these higher prices for all components make feeding for components a continued area of focus to help the dairy in the face of milk check deductions related to cuts in base allotments and balancing.

Earlier in the program, Dr. Mike Van Amburgh shared Cornell University research on how to feed cows in a way that optimizes component yield by percentage, not just in total volume pounds. Total component pounds have historically been a function of total milk volume, but today, percentage counts because of per-hundredweight milk check deductions and over-base penalties.

“Milk volume is being discouraged in many regions of the country,” said Van Amburgh. “So the opportunity for producers here is to enhance their milk components, to make components a primary strategy, while still making your milk volume.”

St-Pierre noted that the next six months will be better than the last six months with a better milk price, and the futures markets certainly confirm this — moving even higher over the past four weeks. Global milk production is down 1% year-to-date, global skim milk powder stocks are low, butter production has been down for three months, stocks are low, and the world is getting short on butterfat, he said.

He observed that the Class III price was averaging over $19 and Class IV over $20 looking out six to 12 months in the futures markets. (That was the case on December 8, and now Class III is averaging over $20 and Class IV over $21.)

He sees the milk check butterfat price averaging $2.30 over the next six months; however, he said he believes this average could actually go higher, while protein should average $2.80. 

Another positive he mentioned is the ‘solids nonfat’ are being priced higher, and the ‘other solids’ are priced at almost double the historical average, driven by robust whey sales.

Even the USDA World Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report the day after this meeting (Dec. 9, 2021) revised forecasts higher for butter, cheese and whey with NFDM forecasted at steady prices in 2022. As pointed out by St-Pierre, the current trends suggest this report could revise upward again in January, although much hinges on consumer responses to inflationary pressure in their buying habits.

The 2021 All Milk price average was increased in the WASDE report to $18.60, buoyed by yearend strength, and the 2022 All-Milk price forecast was revised upward to $20.75.

If current futures market levels are realized, these higher trending milk prices should help dairies keep pace with rising input costs, although experts calculate feed costs to be up by around $2.50/cwt for 2022 vs. 2021 and all costs combined could be up by almost $3.50/cwt for 2022 vs. 2021.

St-Pierre dug into this from a milk pricing standpoint, and he shared the good news that negative producer price differentials (PPD) from 2020 and the first half of 2021 have “quieted down.” 

Negative PPDs eat into location adjustments and change the way components are ultimately valued when massive de-pooling of milk occurs in Federal Milk Marketing Orders.

“We have positive PPDs right now because Class III and IV are trading closer together,” he said, noting that the new Class I formula averages the two manufacturing classes and adds 74 cents, so when they trade farther apart, the producer sees the hit in Class I also, dragging down the blend price and leaving smaller or negative producer price differentials (PPD).

The Class I pricing change and negative PPDs are issues St-Pierre has written about.

“Now they are asking the people who made the mess to fix it. That escapes me,” he said, noting the Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO) were created in the 1930s and designed at a time when there were hundreds of cooperatives and milk did not move all over the country and the world.

St-Pierre said FMMOs exist for “orderly marketing,” but the government made a ‘fix’ that is like fixing an old horse. “He’s fixed but not running very fast and may be at the point where the horse has had enough.”

FMMOs were also created at a time when people drank more milk. Today, he said, they eat more cheese.

Showing a graph of per-capita fluid milk sales from 1980 (234 pounds per capita annually) to 2018 (146 pounds per capita annually), St-Pierre asked: “Does that look to you like an area of growth? If that marketer worked for Coca-Cola, he would have long been unemployed.”

While he acknowledged fluid milk has been disadvantaged by “lazy marketing,” he also said promoting milk is very hard because “we are not in the same world as in 1980. We are competing against water — with food in a bottle that we have to keep refrigerated. Cheese is easier to sell.”

The per-capita rise in cheese consumption since 1980 reflects this.

In the past, said St-Pierre, the FMMOs were designed to put the highest price in the bottle because that was the most perishable product. Today, as for the past 20 years, the prices are still based on the surveys of four products at wholesale – cheddar, butter, nonfat dry milk, and whey.

It was designed to have those prices for Classes 1 through 4 go in that order, he explained. “But it doesn’t work that way anymore.”

“As the butter price goes up, just make more butter, right?” he asks. “But it’s hard to make butter in a cheese plant and vice versa.”

“If I’m a processor, and I built a big cheese plant, and it cost me $150 million, I make a lot of cheese,” St-Pierre quipped.

Plus the built-in make allowances encourage single-product, single-class production plants running at full capacity, regardless of what the market is doing.

“It will take a while to change that dynamic,” he said.

“All milk is paid on components, but handlers don’t pay for components in the same way in the (FMMO) pool,” said St-Pierre. He explained that milk handlers pay for components according to how the milk is used, what “class” of products the milk was utilized in.

Class I price is based on butterfat and skim, Class II on butterfat and nonfat solids. Class III, which is 55% of the milk utilization, pays mainly on protein and other solids with an adjustment for butterfat because cheese production also uses a lot of fat. Class IV pays on butterfat and nonfat solids.

“We price things backward. Tell me one thing that you can go out and buy and drive out of the store and a month later tell that store what you will pay for it,” St-Pierre said, noting this is essentially what milk buyers do through the FMMO system, month after month, year after year.

He encouraged producers to be looking ahead three months, which he admitted is hard to do when the pricing for their product is so far behind the transaction. Still, he said following the markets gives a good indication, and there is more reliability in the 3-month window than 6 to 12 months out in the futures markets. 

The Class III price is normally higher than Class IV, but for the next few months, even through the next year, it looks to be flip-flopped.

Using an ‘imaginary’ FMMO, he divided all four classes as 25% utilization, which in reality is not too far off what the Northeast Order can come close to. In that four-class FMMO, the different ways different classes pay for components cause the books to be out of balance after producers are paid their advance check based on protein. Knowing each class pays differently, the class price differences and utilization become the key to how that PPD is either positive, flat or negative.

When Class IV was $6 below Class III, cooperatives and processors de-pooled a lot of milk, St-Pierre observed: “They could just pay 20 cents over that $13.80 price to get the milk and then sell it back at the $20 (Class III) price. That makes the co-op look good but the producer gets shafted,” said St-Pierre.

In FMMO 30, where most of the utilization is already Class III, processors made a lot of cheese in 2020-21, but they didn’t pool a lot of that milk, and they got it cheaper, he explained.

Bottom line, said St-Pierre, the Federal Orders were never designed to operate this way. Then along came the “little change” in the Class I price. In the past, the FMMOs used the ‘higher of’ Class III or IV as the way to set the Class I base.

“If I am a bottler, I don’t like that (higher of) because I don’t know how to hedge it,” said St-Pierre. “I know my price ahead of time anyway (through advance Class I pricing), but I still don’t like the ‘higher of’ so I go and tell Congress to average it and add 74 cents. Then Covid-19 hits, and producers lose over $750 million.”

St-Pierre notes that the industry is trying to fix the system, backwards.

He confirmed that where the negative PPDs kick Northeast producers is in the location adjustments. A smaller than normal positive PPD is a loss, and when it goes negative, it eats into the location adjustment, which is also supposed to be positive.

Working through all of these thoughts about pricing and consumption pattern, St-Pierre left dairy farmers with the good news that for the foreseeable future, the PPDs should be positive, although smaller than normal in some months, and Class III and IV prices are both on the rise. 

Production has slowed, and demand is good, including for milk powders and whey. These positive supply and demand factors are confirmed in the dairy product production and cold storage reports.

With the very reasonable expectation of good prices for milk components, in the face of base penalties, balancing assessments, and other milk check deductions that a dairy producer encounters, the best way to navigate is focusing on component yield because the deductions are a flat amount per hundredweight of total volume, whereas component yield becomes a percentage increase in the value of those milk hundredweights.

Look for more on other interesting nutrition topics and milk quality award winners as this article continues in a future Farmshine.

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Ag Secretary says ‘Dairy will change’, economist digs into how, why

Using a graphic pulled from the September 10, 2021 edition of Farmshine in which a follow up story ran about Danone dropping 89 organic dairy farms from its Horizon brand — all of its Horizon farms in the Northeast — Bozic explained that the ‘social mission’ of cooperatives is to market all of their members’ milk. He said the “primary function of the future” for the Federal Milk Marketing Orders — as an extension of the cooperatives — is to ensure market access for dairy farms. “Market Orders are there to ensure orderly consolidation at a humane pace,” he declared.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Sept. 24, 2021

HARRISBURG, Pa. – ‘Turning the page’ was the theme for the annual Financial and Risk Management Conference where key takeaways about a changing dairy industry were presented.

The conference was hosted by the Center for Dairy Excellence Sept. 21 in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding summarized his own thoughts: “I am still very positive about dairy, but dairy will change. It is changing,” he said.

The Center’s risk management educator Zach Myers set the stage for attending lenders, vendors, producers and industry talking about Dairy Margin Coverage and Dairy Revenue Protection and how these programs have worked (more on that in a separate article.)

Digging into the stress — the ‘change’ — was Marin Bozic, University of Minnesota associate professor of applied economics and dairy foods marketing, who also serves as facilitator for the Midwest Dairy Growth Alliance. He dug right into how and why, discussing some of the Federal Milk Marketing Order complexities, industry trends and pricing relationships. He made the case that more flexibility, competition and innovation are needed in the Federal Orders for a “level playing field” so winners and losers can “self-select.”

Bringing up the 89 organic producers Danone will drop from Horizon next year, Bozic said it is an example that, “One new farm in Indiana replaced 89 or 90 farms in the Northeast, and they can do that. There is nothing illegal about it. They could say they have a fiduciary responsibility to stakeholders and are minding their bottom line, but none of that helps you if 90 producers get dumped in a year.”

He pointed out the “social mission” of the cooperatives is to leave no member behind, so remaining an independent producer carries more risk today than in the past.

Bozic connected the dots to say the “primary function of the future for Federal Milk Marketing Orders — as an extension of the milk cooperatives — is to ensure market access for dairy producers.

“Market orders are there to ensure orderly consolidation at a humane pace,” he declared.

That’s a change from the central promise of the FMMOs today, which Bozic described earlier as “broken.”

“To navigate our businesses over the next year and longer,” said Bozic, “we have to count the passes and see the gorilla” — a nod to the visual exercise he had the audience participate in.

Bozic mentioned a few gorillas in milk. Gorillas in the FMMOs, in risk management, in dairy markets and in the macroeconomic situation – what else is going on in the world.

He showed graphs of what Producer Price Differentials (PPDs) looked like for the Northeast in 2020, the $4 and $5 negatives that represented cash flow bleeding, equity bleeding.

While the futures show the view out to the horizon over the next 6, 12, 15 months that would suggest there won’t be a repeat of that carnage, Bozic cited some of these risks, or gorillas, in the market and in world events that could represent shocks that can make the whole thing “go haywire again.”

Observing that the FMMOs are not the same today as when they were designed many decades ago, Bozic stepped conference attendees through the various long- and short-term impacts that reduce PPD, such as declining Class I utilization compared with increasing Class IV utilization and production.

“Orders were designed around the assumption that there would be plenty of fluid milk usage (as a percentage of total production), and we can just take it and designate it to be the highest and use those funds to make everyone whole,” said Bozic.

“The central promise of the FMMOs is that if your milk is as good as your neighbor’s, you get paid the same, so one farmer does not bid against another for market access and a good price,” he asserted. “That promise is now getting broken, not as much here, the East Coast FMMOs still have Class I.”

The next effect in the Northeast is the rise of protein tests. This impact comes through two channels where higher protein reduces PPD, the economist explained.

“Envision FMMOs as all processors paying into the pool and then taking from the pool. First they pay to the pool with classified pricing based on their respective milk solids. Class I pays on pounds of skim milk as volume, not on protein pounds,” he explained. “Even if sales are the same and the only thing that changes is protein, those (Class I) processors would pay the same amount (on skim) into the pool and take more money out (on protein) so there is less money remaining and a lower PPD.”

The second way higher protein production affects PPD is when the value of protein is lower in the powder than it is in the cheese. The butter/powder plant pays to the pool on nonfat solids price but takes money from the pool on protein price, “so that spread between the value of protein in cheese and powder also leaves less money for PPD,” said Bozic.

He explained the Class III price as an index of butterfat, protein and solids, in a straight formula that equals the class price. “When Class III price is higher than Class IV price, the predicted PPD for the Northeast Order declines,” said Bozic. “It’s almost linear.”

Conversely, when IV is above III, PPD goes up. “This has to do with paying the pool based on protein and nonfat solids, but when handlers take money out of the pool for components, everyone takes protein price leaving less money in the pool for PPD.

Bozic explained the demand shock to this system when the Food Box program “focused on smaller packages of cheese to put in every box. They didn’t take bulk powder and butter. So we went from a record low cheese price on the CME to a record high and no one expected this.”

The pull of 5% of the cheese supply for immediate delivery had everyone scrambling, said Bozic.

The amount of spare cheese available was not as high a volume as the government wanted to buy so cheese went from being long to short, and the price skyrocketed. This translated to an historically higher gap between Class III and IV prices as wide as $10 apart.

So why not just send more milk to make cheese? Bozic maintains that Class IV processing is accustomed to “balancing” fluid milk seasonality so there is extra capacity in that system.

Not so with Class III because those plants already run at capacity. “That’s the only way processors of commodity cheese make margin is to run at capacity, so when the demand shock came, and spare product was used up, there was no spare capacity and the price went higher. That was the main driver of negative PPD in 2020,” said Bozic.

Will it happen again? Bozic doesn’t foresee Food box programs with the same intensity in the future, but, “yes, it can happen, but I would say you need to have a pandemic in an election year. Don’t count on a program like this.”

The industry did ask USDA back in the 2008-09 recession to buy consumer packaged cheese instead of bulk commodities, so it could move instead of being stored to overhang the market later. That wasn’t working either.

“Now we understand that this other method disturbs PPDs so the dairy industry is united behind a more balanced approach,” said Bozic, describing the next iteration of purchases through the Dairy Donation Program will not be as aggressive in moving the markets by three orders of magnitude.”

Bozic said quick rallies and crashes impact PPDs also because of advance pricing on Class I based on the first two weeks of the prior month and announced pricing for the other classes at the end of the month.

Bozic explained why the change in Class I pricing was made: “The dairy industry wants to attract new distributors like Starbucks and McDonalds that are used to hedging their input costs. They don’t want to change prices every month. They want it to be what it is for a year, so the industry wants stable, predictable milk price costs to win favor with new distribution channels by making it easier for them to hedge.”

He said the new average plus 74 cents was designed to be revenue neutral. Looking forward, when Classes III and IV have less than $1.48/cwt spread, PPD under the new system is higher than under the old. But the most it can be higher is by 74 cents on Class I, which translates to 20 cents on the blend price.

The best case scenario is to add 20 cents to the blend price, but when Classes III and IV are far apart “the PPD can go haywire. Bottom line, the upside benefit of the averaging method with 74-cent adjuster is limited but the downside risk is big,” said Bozic.