India’s massive buffalo exports reflect different approach to food safety

July 9, 2014

India has exported well over 500,000 tonnes of buffalo to Vietnam in 10 months of the latest July to June year. This figure easily exceeds the total of New Zealand’s beef exports to all countries. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts from the UK

July 8, 2014

While in the UK briefly last week I spent a couple of nights with an old university friend who actually got a First in Agriculture at Cambridge which was the best degree achieved by any of my friends or, not surprisingly, me. He farms near the M4 in Berkshire less than 100 kilometres from London.

 

As usual when I see him, we were chatting about the state of agriculture in our respective countries. He asked me whether I needed a ‘pommie farmer whinge’ to provide some material for a column, so not unnaturally I told him to go ahead. His first complaint was about the amount of New Zealand lamb competing with British lamb in the supermarkets. I suggested the view back home was the natural seasonal fit of New Zealand product didn’t really cut across, but rather complemented, the seasonal availability of British lamb.

 

He partly agreed with me on this, but said the British sheep farmer would still prefer it if the competition from our lamb didn’t exist. I was able to provide some reassurance here by telling him how China had come from nowhere to be the biggest market by volume, if not value, for New Zealand lamb which meant there was progressively less being exported to the UK than was the case even 12 months ago.

 

An aside here which I discovered soon after getting back at the weekend: apparently sales of stockinette are back up to levels last seen in the 1980s when most New Zealand lamb exports were shipped in carcase form. This is clearly a direct consequence of the increase in sales to China, so while we can be pleased with the diversification from our traditional markets, we should be less excited by the return to a product form from the 1980s.

 

As a crop farmer who has a contract with a contractor on a similar profit share basis to our share milking model, my friend is frustrated by the delay in setting the basis for the current season’s EU subsidy. While we may think he’s lucky to be receiving a subsidy at all, as I told him, his frustration is understandable, because until he gets this information, he can’t confirm the profit share with his contractor.

 

Interestingly his calculations indicate that this year’s profits will be higher than last year, in spite of a lower price. This is because the yield this year is so much better than last. After a very wet start to 2014, the weather has been much more favourable and this year’s crop is in much better condition.

 

My friend confirmed the continuing problems being experienced by British dairy farmers who are still losing money on every litre of milk they produce. The supermarkets still dominate the price of milk, while it appears farmers don’t have the ability to supply milk at a higher price for the manufacture of cheese and other value added products.

 

A final impression from my brief visit was the lack of sheep, at least in the parts of England I drove through. In the Cotswolds where I grew up sheep appear to be almost a forgotten species with only the impressive wool churches, built in the middle ages, to serve as a reminder of where the region’s wealth originally came from.

 

But I suspect that has probably been the case for the last thirty years or more. Land use change isn’t restricted to dairy farm conversions in Canterbury and Southland.

Red Meat Profit Partnership tries to answer crucial question

July 3, 2014

Analysis of the objectives and methodology of the RMPP suggests the programme has highlighted the most important issue facing the red meat sector. Briefly stated, it is to work out why there is still such a significant gap between the top farmers and those in the middle of the pack and to lift the average closer to the top performers.

 

When the Red Meat Sector Strategy identified behind the farm gate specifically as a major area of potential improvement, there was much mumbling about why the industry structure wasn’t being more usefully exposed as the area most in need of improvement. But figures released by the B+LNZ Economic Service show this isn’t the case.

 

The most graphic demonstration of this appeared in the RMPP brochure sent out last year. Sheep and beef farmers were grouped in 20% quintiles for comparison and in this table the second to bottom quintile was compared to the top 20%: there was a 3% gap in lamb price achieved, but a staggering difference of 135% between the groups when measured on dollars per lamb and dollars per hectare regardless of the class of farm. To put it simply the top 20% are nearly two and a half times as profitable on a pre tax basis.

 

Obviously the bottom 20% lags even further behind. However this position has improved markedly over the last 20 years with a much greater percentage of farmers moving up the performance scale into a higher quintile. It is tempting to ask how much smaller the national flock would be today, if the level of performance was still stuck at 1991 levels.

 

A great deal of work has already gone into the RMPP, first in preparation for obtaining Primary Growth Partnership funding and second in getting to the stage of signing up the parties to the limited partnership of industry contributors achieved a couple of weeks ago. There is a good cross section of participants including B+LNZ, six meat processors, two banks and Deloitte which have committed to $32.15 million which matches a similar contribution from PGP programme funding.

 

These are not small sums of money which the partners are willing to invest which should hopefully convince sheep and beef farmers that their future prosperity is considered really important. The target is to increase on farm revenue by $880 million and profit by $194 million per year by 2025.

 

The funding programme is designed to be spread over seven years, although Chairman Malcolm Bailey has said he wants to achieve the outcomes faster than that. There are five distinct projects, the first of which – to understand farmer behaviour – is already well under way towards completion before the end of this year.

 

This project is essential for setting a firm platform for the programme as a whole with one set of integrated information. This research seeks to establish across all farming groups barriers to change, what works and doesn’t work in farm extension, and what distinguishes the high performing farmer from the lower performing tiers.

 

The second project focuses on enhancing sector capability, using the banks’ expertise in governance and financial planning, alongside in excess of 80 pilot schemes to be carried out by farm advisors to achieve best practice in breeding, pasture, forage, technical innovation and the development of integrated applied farm systems. An important aspect of this work stream is to attract bright new talent to the meat industry.

 

The third project will concentrate on providing linkage and integration between farm reporting systems which at present are often not properly integrated. This will enable better farm management decision making through benchmarking against regional and national information. Another priority would appear to be teaching sheep and beef farmers the importance of budgeting, because a recent study found that 65% don’t budget, while a further 30% don’t budget effectively which only leaves 5% who do it properly.

 

While the other two projects certainly involve farmers, they also require significant input from other parts of the industry. AsureQuality has the task of ensuring consistency between processors’ QA systems which will make a common set of standards clear to all farmers. This will also enable the achievement of product consistency to meet the expectations of all customers.

 

The final project is one which farmers will no doubt welcome because it is designed to achieve efficiency in the chain linking farmer and processor. Knowing how much unnecessary transport happens at the moment, some of it driven by farmers and some by processors, this area touches on the need for capacity rationalisation which is not the responsibility of the RMPP. Deloitte has accepted responsibility for this piece of work.

 

I am encouraged by the amount of detail and careful planning which underpin this programme because it is of crucial importance to the future of the red meat sector. It demands a great deal of commitment from all the partners, including tax payers, farmers and commercial operators.

 

It won’t happen quickly, but far better to do it properly. Farmers stand to gain a lot from the programme’s successful implementation, but so do the meat companies, banks, all businesses that service or supply the sector, and ultimately New Zealand as a whole.

Behaviour is the root cause of meat industry’s problems

June 29, 2014

I am not completely sure why we spend so much time and effort complaining about the meat industry or which problems we are trying to solve. However in the interests of encouraging progress and stimulating debate, I will try to define the problem: this appears to be that the meat processing and export sector is not profitable enough, whether in absolute terms or in comparison to dairy. Both may be true.

 

It is worth stating the unique challenges of the red meat sector up front. First, there is a market at both ends of the chain, procurement and sale of the products; second, New Zealand exports a higher percentage of its production than any other country which must travel further to reach its markets, not all of them equally buoyant; third, sheep and beef must be disassembled into multiple cuts of meat as well as many co-products, all of which are sold into a wide range of markets for variable returns; fourth the climate dictates when the grass will grow and livestock will be ready for slaughter; and last, but not least, the producer can choose when and where to send the livestock for slaughter except in a drought.

 

Statistics and financial reports show that only a minority of participants in the industry are making much if any consistent profit, whether farmers or processors. So the conclusion must be that everybody, except for a few good farmers or companies with a niche market, would be happier with a more profitable industry.

 

Everybody keeps blaming everybody else, but nothing seems to change, because individually the parties must attempt to survive at the expense of others. That is the fundamental reason for the state of the meat industry. It may seem obvious to outside observers that cooperation is the way to make progress, but the complex nature of the red meat industry poses a difficult dilemma. The answers are extremely hard to find; otherwise some genius would have found them already.

 

MIAG thought they had found the answer – merge the two cooperatives – and MIE, after promising not to make the same mistakes as MIAG, seem to be taking the same path. In 2008 Owen Poole, Alliance Group Chairman at the time, tried to achieve an industry grouping with 80% of processing capacity, as the minimum required to create a robust business model, but this foundered on lack of agreement between the larger processors.

 

When preparing the Red Meat Sector Strategy, Alasdair Macleod of Deloitte started out from the premise that Zespri and Fonterra were the models for the meat industry. But he soon realised that the meat industry’s characteristics and complexity made it different.

 

In the 1980s Pappas Carter proposed the concept of Tradable Slaughter Rights as the best way to bring about industry rationalisation; this was raised again last year as an option by me and with greater publicity by retiring Beef + Lamb NZ chairman Mike Petersen.

 

Three of the major processors, the cooperatives and ANZCO, with just over 60% market share took this idea to government, which rejected it, unless 80% of farmers and processors were in favour. While seductively attractive at first sight, on reflection TSRs only suit some players, because they will reduce farm gate competition, while protecting less efficient processors.

 

In any case it seems to be impossible to achieve the agreement of such a high percentage of either farmers or processors. There are still enough farmers who want to maintain their traditional livestock supply methods and stock agent relationships to make such uniform behaviour unachievable.

 

There are also quite a few highly efficient farmers out there who are profitable, based on high lambing and calving percentages, good pasture management, intelligent use of technology and constructive relationships with their processor of choice. Equally there are several privately owned, efficient and profitable processors who would be seriously disadvantaged by the introduction of tradable rights.

 

Farmer ownership is touted as the answer to the challenge of controlling the value chain, because in good times there should be bigger profits and farmer ownership would mean farmers would keep these higher profits, which is not necessarily true. It is often forgotten that meat companies, like all processing businesses, must invest in modernisation and new technology, or they will become steadily less competitive. Profits must be reinvested in maintenance, new plants, new technology and people, not just paid out to shareholders.

 

It will be interesting to see how the successful MIE backed board candidates find life on the boards of Alliance and Silver Fern Farms. The realities of the meat industry, especially cash flow, balance sheets and banking covenants, will concentrate their minds on these critical aspects at the expense of more idealistic ambitions.

 

Ownership carries risk. Therefore farmer ownership of both ends of the value chain entails double the risk of losses, when world markets collapse, unless payments to suppliers suffer correspondingly. The present exporters, both privately owned and cooperative, have the expertise to move between 85% and 90% of New Zealand produced red meat and co-products which is a far more complicated exercise than exporting 90% of dairy exports in the case of Fonterra.

 

Obviously processing over capacity contributes to loss of value in the industry, while it also affects behaviour – both forcing processors to pay more than is economically sensible for livestock and encouraging cash flow generating sale of inventory at less than optimum prices at certain times.

 

However it is wrong to blame the structure of the industry for lack of farming profitability. If there were a perfect balance between supply and demand (impossible to achieve in a seasonal industry), processors would pay a consistent price at all times, neither too much nor too little. Overall, farmers would still receive a fair, but possibly lower, average price for their livestock than under the present system.

 

It is the companies’ shareholders that lose from the present competitive environment with excess capacity and those shareholders may either be farmers or corporate owners. In the long run those companies losing the most money, which are by definition the least efficient, will have to go out of business.

 

The losers will be the shareholders and the banks, as well as the suppliers who have livestock at risk at the time of receivership. Merging the two cooperatives will involve a huge write-off of surplus assets with no guarantee of long term survival.

 

I am not trying to pretend that all is right with the present industry model with no improvements possible, but, judging by the reaction from the farmers who attended MIE meetings in the first half of 2013, I sense many of them have an unrealistic expectation of the potential improvements.

 

It also seems that farmers think it is all the fault of the processors and exporters and, if somebody waves a magic wand to merge the coops and enforce farmer ownership of the industry, it will all come right. But life isn’t like that!

 

For a start red meat does not have a premium position in global markets that guarantees all New Zealand production a top price. Those markets are there, but they are comparatively small; however meat exporters are adept at shifting all types of product into different markets at a whole range of price points. Occasionally they have too much inventory and prices drop which leads to accusations of weak selling.

 

When one combines that scenario with procurement competition, some farmers do well, but there is an impression of a dysfunctional industry. So the question is what can be done to correct it. The usual solutions proposed are rationalise capacity and move to single desk selling.

 

The first one costs money and is hard to achieve in a free market except through receivership or voluntary plant closure; the second one is naïve and will never work. Ultimately farmers must get on and do what they are best at, except they must use more logic and do it better.

 

Logic dictates that, unless farmers have very deep pockets, they cannot lead and pay for industry restructure; but what they can do is adopt farming practices which will lift them up the curve and bring in higher profits, by using the technology and information available from, among others, Farm IQ, Beef + Lamb NZ and Primary Growth Partnership investments.

 

The next piece of logic could equally be termed common sense. Work with your processor of choice to ensure that you are producing livestock to the required specification and delivery for which you receive a transparently fair price. If you aren’t happy with your relationship, either because your processor isn’t transparent, fails to accept stock when agreed, uses third parties for procurement or doesn’t convince you of their payment security, then change your processor.

 

The way farmers and processors behave in their dealings with each other will have the greatest impact on the future of the meat industry because greater trust will enable both parties to get on with what they are good at. Global market prices will fluctuate as they always have, but there remains solid demand and eventually profitability will improve.

Wishing won’t make it happen

May 24, 2014

Southland Regional Council chair, Ali Timms, hopes the government will take on board her warning about the effect of the red meat sector’s continued decline on water quality and increased nitrogen levels. Read the rest of this entry »

Common sense and willingness to compromise would help meat industry

May 15, 2014

All the predictions of imminent doom for the red meat sector suggest it is a basket case with little hope of redemption. Dairy gets all the favourable headlines and this is fully deserved in the light of its performance since the early years of this century. But it ignores the meat industry’s $8 billion contribution to exports and the substantial farm profitability improvement over the same period, especially taking Beef + Lamb’s improved prediction for this season. Read the rest of this entry »

Why red meat sector needs to reform

May 13, 2014

An analysis of the livestock population over the last 25 years provides compelling evidence of how the ratio of sheep and beef to dairy has changed dramatically. Although we are aware of this change from all the publicity about the growth in dairy farming, it’s a shock to see the bald statistics from B+LNZ’s Economic Service which show a 92% increase in the dairy herd compared with a decline of 47% in the sheep flock and 20% in the beef herd. Read the rest of this entry »

Agricultural footprint risks getting out of balance

April 30, 2014

While not exactly a new or revolutionary call for action, Fish and Game’s call last week for an independent review of water use and leaching into waterways was another bit of pressure on the future development of New Zealand farming. The organisation has long been agitating for such a review, but the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s critical report on land use and nutrient pollution in waterways has provided it with further ammunition.

Read the rest of this entry »

Challenge of creating a strong red meat sector

April 12, 2014

I am obviously not alone in trying to work out ways of creating a strong red meat sector with profits being shared equitably between the participants. But it is an elusive model which nobody has yet succeeded in identifying. It makes me wonder if it is an impossible dream, but there are a number of determined dreamers who are still intent on finding the solution.

 

Recently I have had an exchange of emails, not always amicable, with John McCarthy, chairman of MIE, who is committed to achieving consensus among farmers about a future industry structure which will get away from the price taker model.

 

He takes me to task, quite legitimately, for seeing things from the companies’ perspective which, he says, focuses on making a profit for shareholders. But this doesn’t satisfy farmers’ objectives of being sustainably profitable which is the only way a strong red meat sector will emerge. He agrees the top farmers are performing satisfactorily, but in his view these only comprise 20-25% of farmers.

 

McCarthy says what he would like to see as part of MIE’s push for reform is a credible analysis of the sector’s risks and rewards. Questions to be answered include whether we can grow the pie through a NZ Inc approach, if committed supply will give bankers certainty and allow for a more sustainable model. He would also like to know whether the companies can be transparent and share the marketplace, if there is an advantage and how to gain it.

 

These are the questions which the summit proposed by MIE would attempt to answer.

 

I agree wholeheartedly with McCarthy on the need to improve the present red meat sector model, because clearly the present model is not working equally for all participants. The traditional way it works is for meat processors to have control when livestock supply is plentiful, particularly in drought conditions, whereas farmers are in the driving seat when grass is plentiful.

 

However market demand and the exchange rate determine the final size of the pie, while the way the pie is shared depends on the flow of livestock. From one year to the next farmers make decisions about their farming enterprises and over the last decade this has seen a dramatic reduction in sheep and to a lesser extent prime beef numbers, primarily because of the improved economics of dairy farming in relation to red meat.

 

There are other factors such as farmers’ age profile and the increased influence of corporate farm ownership, but above all the cause of the change has been the relative discrepancy of earnings from dairy in comparison to sheep and beef.

 

This discrepancy is not the result of the formation of Fonterra, although the timing is coincidental. But earnings from dairy have been underpinned by a combination of growing global demand for dairy based commodity products and the growth of trade with China, especially whole milk powder and infant formula.

 

Conversely sheepmeat and prime beef are premium products being sold into high value, lower volume end uses; the red meat sector’s predominant mass market product is lean beef for the fast food trade which is provided ironically by dairy and bull beef.

 

So the key questions to be answered are how to grow the size of the pie and how it can be shared to all parties’ satisfaction.

 

I am not convinced there is much more the exporters can do to increase the value of sales apart from applying the principles of continuous improvement, because the industry has made, and continues to make, enormous gains in products and markets in spite of the strength of the exchange rate. Government and industry are working together to conduct research into new and better ways of doing things. The NZ Inc approach is also essential for the negotiation of market access and tariff agreements, but would not necessarily grow sales and profits in more generic ways.

 

In contrast the processing part of the sector has too much capacity which is capable of processing total throughput in a little over 20 weeks. This would not be possible in drought induced peaks, but nevertheless this overcapacity is a charge on the sector which reduces the amount of profit to be shared. However the location and ownership of the surplus capacity is not evenly spread across either country or companies.

 

The meat exporters have attempted several times in recent years to find a common solution to this problem without success. I don’t believe a summit would be any more effective because of the conflicting interests of the different companies’ shareholders and bankers.

 

The Rabobank Agriculture in Focus 2014 report identifies a lack of capital investment in infrastructure and productivity improvement as a serious handicap to the development of the sheepmeat sector, stating that new capital could be either local or international. Chinese investment in Blue Sky Meats may be the first such development.

 

Therefore it comes back to trying to achieve the achievable. Without wanting to incur John McCarthy’s annoyance again, I don’t believe farmers can make many gains, unless they can unite under a common banner. MIE faces a big challenge to organise a meaningful pan-industry summit with any hope of an agreed and constructive outcome.

Changing beef outlook

April 12, 2014

There have been some interesting beef market developments in recent days.

 

Of immediate interest is the news of a forecast excess of US exports over production in the second half of the year as against a relatively small increase in production, reported in the USDA livestock supply and demand report which was released yesterday.

 

This leads to a prediction of firmer prices for lean beef, although this will coincide with the seasonal downturn in New Zealand production. Australia is expected to be in a good position to take advantage of this situation.

 

The other item of interest is the bi-lateral trade agreement between Japan and Australia which will reduce the tariff on frozen beef from 38.5% to 19.5% over 18 years and on fresh beef to 23.5% over 15 years.

 

While this may appear to be unduly slow, all other countries’ beef tariffs will remain at the 38.5% rate, until or unless the TPP agreement is concluded. It would be difficult for Japan to expect to negotiate a less favourable deal with signatories to the TPP, and if more favourable the terms of the Australian FTA would be amended to match it.

 

In the meantime New Zealand’s beef exports to Japan will have to compete with Australian product at gradually decreasing tariff rates.

 

What is significant here is that the FTA has taken seven years to negotiate, but indicates an increasing willingness to open up the fiercely protective Japanese agricultural sector under pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Cheese has also benefited under the terms of the FTA with Australia permitted to export a further 20,000 tonnes.

 

Japan has a highly protected and subsidised farm sector, particularly in the areas of rice, beef, pork, dairy, and sugar and its powerful farm lobby has long resisted any efforts to liberalise trade in those products. It will be fascinating to see how successful Abe is in encouraging more concessions in pursuit of the TPP.

 

Equally he could find himself going down the path taken by all Prime Ministers of recent years which has seen Japanese trade policy stagnate in the face of opposition and an inability to get reform measures through the Japanese parliament.


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