Keep calm and dairy on

Fonterra will announce a drop in its forecast payout today.

Whatever it is,  it will be below break-even for all but the very leanest of operations.

However, it is important to keep it in perspective. Most farmers will be facing a cash flow problem not an equity one.

There have been eight big drops in payouts in the last 40 years and only three of them have led to significant falls in land values. Those were during the ag-sag of the 80s, the Asian crisis in the late 90s and the GFC when the rest of the country and most of the world were in trouble too.

Providing farmers keep talking to and working with their bankers they will be willing to help them through the next season or two until the milk price improves.

Only then will they will focus on any structural problems because in spite of the rhetoric from the Chicken-Littles, banks aren’t going to be forcing people off their farms if there are alternatives. That would not only be bad for the banks and the troubled clients it would have a depressing affect on land values which would then start biting the equity in other farms.

There’s no doubt this season will be a test of farmer resilience:

The possible milk payout forecast by DairyNZ CEO Tim Mackle, based on Open Country, of $4 per kilogram of milk solids has the potential to hit the average dairy farm by $250K according to KPMG analysis. . .

This projected price level will sorely test farm system resilience and confidence according to KPMG Farm Enterprise specialist Roger Wilson.
“The Individual impacts will vary depending on farm system and debt.” says Wilson, “The outlook is tough but this is the time to apply some science and really examine the options.”

A lot of farms are actually adaptable and resilient and the smart farmers can be very responsive even in the short term. With stronger beef prices farmers may look at incorporating an element of dry stock farming, particularly if dairy herd sizes are reduced.

Where there’s crisis there’s also opportunity.

The KPMG Farm Enterprise team are already seeing proactive farmers using a combination of reducing the use of supplements and fertiliser, and lowering stock numbers and the reliance on off-farm grazing.

The big call is stock numbers where a one off cull of 10-20% of cows post calving might be a good option. Critically this has a one off cash flow benefit, and tightens the operating budget without impacting capacity in 24 months.

Roger Wilson says, “Expect this to contribute to a reduction in milk supply for 2015/16 which is forecast to provide Fonterra with a bit more flexibility at its end.”

The reduction in supply should contribute to improved operating performance for dairy companies in 2014/15. Fonterra is already running at full capacity which limits its product optimisation options. With increased capacity and reduced supply Fonterra will have the flexibility to move a much higher proportion of product into high value streams and drive a much better EBIT number.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that returns across the balance of the industry are still in a good place, 60% plus of the primary sector is booming, this shouldn’t be overlooked.

Red meat, pipfruit, kiwifruit and wine are all selling well and in spite of the hit the economy will take from the dairying downturn, it is still growing.

That said, this season will be difficult.

Sharemilkers are at risk if they have a lot of debt. Farmers who want to retain good people in the industry need to work with their sharemilkers and the banks to help them through the downturn.

The low payout will hurt people who service and supply dairy farms, including other farmers who provide supplementary feed or grazing. Some of these will be able to make the most of good beef prices.

The wider economy will also feel the pinch as farmers reduce their costs and cut back on expenditure where they can.

A banker told me one of his dairy clients regularly uses 80 other businesses, most of them smaller ones, and all of those will be hit as their bigger customers stop spending.

Dairying accounts for a bit more than 20% of our exports and around 5% of the economy.

The downturn has already spread off-farm but unlike the downturns in the 80s, 90s and noughties, the root of this one is one is largely confined to dairying.

Dairy farmers, sharemilkers and those who get most of their income from them will have a lean season.

But the sky isn’t falling and what goes down will go up again, sooner or later.

 

 

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