Bloomberg News

Milk-Cow Drought Culling Accelerates as Prices Jump: Commodities

October 09, 2012

Milk-Cow Drought Culling Accelerates as Prices Jump

Dairies in California, the top milk-producing state, are filing for bankruptcy, and U.S. cows are being slaughtered at the fastest rate in more than a quarter century. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

U.S. milk production is headed for the biggest contraction in 12 years as a drought-fueled surge in feed costs drives more cows to slaughter.

Output will drop 0.5 percent to 198.9 billion pounds (90.2 million metric tons) in 2013 as the herd shrinks to an eight- year low, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. Milk futures rose 45 percent since mid-April and may advance at least an additional 19 percent to a record $25 per 100 pounds by June, said Shawn Hackett, the president of Boynton Beach, Florida- based Hackett Financial Advisers Inc. He correctly predicted the rally in March.

Dairies in California, the top milk-producing state, are filing for bankruptcy, and U.S. cows are being slaughtered at the fastest rate in more than a quarter century. Corn surged to a record in August as the USDA forecast the smallest crop in six years because of drought across the U.S. Global dairy prices tracked by the United Nations rose 6.9 percent last month, the most among the five food groups monitored, and that will probably mean record costs next year, Rabobank estimates.

“Farmers can’t afford to buy as much grain and protein, and that affects milk production,” said Bob Cropp, an economist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who has been following the industry since 1966. “In California, there’ve been some foreclosures and some sell-off of cows quite heavily. You’re going to see that in other parts of the country.”

Mercantile Exchange

Class III milk, used to make cheese, jumped 22 percent to $21.01 on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange this year. That’s more than 20 of the 24 commodities in the Standard & Poor’s GSCI Spot Index, which rose 3.5 percent. The MSCI All-Country World Index (MXWD) of equities climbed 11 percent, and Treasuries returned 1.8 percent, a Bank of America Corp. index shows.

The global dairy market is facing a scarcity of supply in the next 12 months as output slows in the U.S. and Europe and demand keeps expanding, Rabobank said in a Sept. 27 report. Surplus milk available for shipment from the seven biggest exporting regions will decline for the first time in four years, and there is little excess inventory, the bank’s team of 11 dairy analysts estimate.

U.S. cows produced 1,776 pounds of milk each on average in August, 0.5 percent less than a year earlier, government data show. That’s the first decline in 13 months and the biggest year-on-year drop since February 2004, according to Bill Brooks, an economist at INTL FCStone Inc. in Kansas City. Productivity probably slipped because of the heat waves and changes in feed rations, said Brooks, who grew up on a Missouri dairy farm and has covered the industry for two decades.

Dairy Herd

Almost 2.04 million dairy cows were slaughtered in the first eight months of the year, 6.7 percent more than in 2011 and the most for that period since 1986, government data show. The U.S. dairy herd will shrink 1.1 percent to 9.11 million head in 2013, the smallest since 2005, according to the USDA.

While slaughter rates are rising, farmers tend to cull their least-efficient animals and replace them with younger, more-productive cows, said Robert Chesler, a Chicago-based vice president in the foods division of INTL FCStone Inc., which handled $75 billion of physical commodities in 2011.

Production per cow will rise 0.6 percent to 21,830 pounds next year, from an estimated 21,690 pounds this year, the USDA forecasts. A more-productive herd may mean an increase in total supplies rather than the decline the government is predicting, Chesler said.

Cheddar Cheese

Higher prices may crimp demand, with cheddar traded on the CME rallying 26 percent to $2.075 a pound in the third quarter. The increase in wholesale prices may be passed along to retailers, Chesler said.

“We’re hitting levels where buyers are getting concerned,” he said. Commercial milk consumption next year may slide 0.5 percent to 192.2 billion pounds, compared with a 2.1 percent increase this year, the USDA forecasts.

Food prices measured by the UN index may climb to a record 243 by June 2013, from a six-month high of 215.76 in September, Nick Higgins, an analyst at Rabobank in London, said in a report Sept. 19. The UN’s gauge of 55 food items, which gained 7.7 percent since June, peaked at 237.92 in February 2011.

Chinese demand for dairy products and lower production in the U.S. and New Zealand probably will keep prices rising into next year, said Hackett. China is the world’s biggest buyer of whole-milk powder and will import four times more this year than a decade ago, USDA data show.

Record Exports

U.S. exports of cheese, whey, lactose and other dairy products reached records last year, valued at $4.82 billion, or 30 percent more than in 2010, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based U.S. Dairy Export Council. The total amount of U.S. dairy products shipped will increase 2 percent to 5 percent this year from 2011, the council forecasts.

Dairy costs will be “meaningfully higher” for Starbucks Corp. (SBUX:US), the world’s largest coffee-shop chain, in its fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Chief Financial Officer Troy Alstead said on a conference call with analysts July 26. Starbucks has said dairy accounts for about 5 percent to 10 percent of its cost of goods, while coffee makes up 15 percent to 20 percent. Arabica- coffee futures are down 25 percent in the past year. Shares of the Seattle-based company gained 6 percent in 2012.

Raw-milk prices probably will climb next year as the cost of feed increases, Michael Schlotman, chief financial officer for Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. (KR:US), the biggest U.S. grocer, said on a conference call with analysts Sept. 7.

Loss Program

U.S. farmers lost the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which protects producers from high feed costs, when it expired Sept. 30. The end of the subsidy may have a limited impact for now because feed prices typically decline at the end of the harvest, said Vincent Smith, an agriculture economics professor at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Dairy farmers in California, which produced 41.46 billion pounds of milk last year, may be suffering more than in other states partly because they are reliant on imports of corn, soybeans and alfalfa hay, said Michael Marsh, the Chief Executive Officer of Western United Dairymen, a Modesto, California-based trade association.

U.S. corn and wheat inventories before next year’s harvests probably will be smaller than the government forecast in September after the worst drought in 56 years hurt crops, according to the average of as many as 30 analyst estimates in a Bloomberg survey. The USDA is scheduled to update its estimates on Oct. 11.

California Costs

It cost California farmers about $18.22 to produce 100 pounds of milk in the second quarter, and the average price was about $13.91, Marsh estimates. There were 1,675 dairies in California last year, government data show, and about 100 may close in 2012, he said.

Producers in California are not part of a federal system that sets minimum returns for farmers, so they tend to get lower prices than in other states, according to Ed Jesse, a professor emeritus in the department of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Dairies got $16.42 per 100 pounds in August, 9.3 percent less than the national average, USDA data show.

Riley Walter, an agricultural bankruptcy lawyer in Fresno, California, said he’s had 58 cases of dairies in some kind of financial difficulty over the past year and half, including bankruptcy filings, out-of-court liquidations and moving operations into receivership.

“Dairies go through cycles, and I’ve hit every one of them since 1979, but nothing like this,” Walter said. “The recent spike in feed prices due to the drought and ethanol policies really put a nail in the coffin of a lot of people.”

More Bankruptcies

So far this year, 49 bankruptcy cases have been filed by family farms in California, up from 43 cases filed last year in the same period, according to federal court records. The cases include dairy and other family-run farms that are eligible to use Chapter 12 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code to try to reorganize their debt.

“We’re all hemorrhaging hard financially,” said Jim Wilson, 44, whose dairy in Riverdale, California, milks about 3,000 cows and is losing about $200,000 a month. “We’re all on the brink of going under and just culling herds harder because we can’t afford to feed them.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Campbell in Chicago at ecampbell14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steve Stroth at sstroth@bloomberg.net


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  • SBUX
    (Starbucks Corp)
    • $70.67 USD
    • 0.28
    • 0.4%
  • KR
    (Kroger Co/The)
    • $45.2 USD
    • -0.25
    • -0.55%
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