A rare breed in the meat industry

March 4, 2015

AFFCO is establishing an encouraging trend among its management ranks with three women in senior roles as plant and technical managers. Ann Nuku and Rebecca Ogg are plant managers of AFFCO Manawatu and Horotiu respectively, while Emma Fitzgerald is the company’s Technical Manager. Read the rest of this entry »

Come on John, give them a break!

February 18, 2015

The last time I dared to question MIE’s desired reform of the meat industry, John McCarthy accused me of bias and warned me to watch out, if we are unlucky enough to run into each other. So this column will almost certainly result in another attack on my character and more threats to my personal safety! Read the rest of this entry »

Conditions not structures cause of red meat price drop

February 12, 2015

The pre Christmas surge of optimism, boosted by high beef and sheepmeat prices when export volumes were low, has largely disappeared. The impact of the drought in the lower North and South Islands has seen slaughter numbers increase dramatically at the same time as a series of negative events have reared their head in world markets. Read the rest of this entry »

Wool trade still at crossroads

February 8, 2015

Ever since the Korean War over sixty years ago the price of wool has been in decline with a few upturns along the way. Over the period the fortunes of wool growers have suffered from massive lifestyle changes leading to reduced demand for woollen textiles and fibres and the rise of synthetics with properties capable of imitating, if not matching, those of wool at a lower price. Wool is not the only natural fibre to be affected, with cotton being hit even harder.

 

There are a remarkable number of parallels between the red meat and wool industries in the reactions to the situation which is not surprising given the respective price trends and the fact many of the farmers are the same individuals. Sheep and beef farmers’ opinions of the deficiencies of the meat industry are virtually identical to those of the wool trade, while proposed solutions are also remarkably similar.

 

The culprits in both cases are the traditional pantomime villains: privately owned meat companies and wool merchants, brokers and exporters, neither of whom, so the argument goes, have much skin in the game apart from shareholder capital, in many cases held by overseas shareholders. The suggested solution to both problems is farmer ownership of the whole value chain which will supposedly retain financial control and ownership while at the same time ensuring sustainably better returns to farmers.

 

So far evidence paradise will result from farmer control appears to be something of a mirage, although it may be too soon to write off the prospect of success completely. One private wool buyer whose family has been in the business since the 19th century told me he doubted the vertical integration model, saying he wouldn’t think of telling farmers how to farm, but equally wouldn’t expect a farmer to know how to run his business.

 

Wools of New Zealand, established in 2013 with grower capital despite failing to reach its initial equity raising target, is too early in its life to be called a failure. But the signs are not all positive although the PR remains very upbeat. There are plenty of rumours of growers who are unhappy with the contract prices they receive with substantial penalties deducted for colour and vegetable matter, up to 45 cents a kilo compared with 10 cents at auction.

 

A second issue is payment; WNZ’s Camira lambs wool contract payment is in three instalments over 15 months compared with 14 days after sale to a private merchant or at auction. Further the contract price of $6.25 per kilo applies to wool up to 30 micron which ignores the variation of up to 60 cents for wool between 27.5 and 30 micron. At the time of writing the only wool type with a lower spot price than the Camira contract is 30 micron, so growers supplying lower micron wool would lose on the transaction, even before allowance for colour and VM discounts and interest costs as a result of the payment schedule.

 

A third factor is the 15 cents a kilo Wool Market Development Commitment levied by WNZ on a shareholder’s assessed annual wool production which applies whether or not growers supply all or part of their clip to WNZ. At up to $30 a bale this can amount to several thousand dollars a year with little evidence of sizeable new premium markets being reflected in higher prices than can be achieved through the traditional systems.

 

Open criticism of WNZ is not yet frequently heard or expressed, either because shareholders are still prepared to keep an open mind or are unwilling to admit they might have made an expensive mistake or possibly they haven’t yet analysed the comparative returns. But there are definitely instances of growers who have reverted to supplying private merchants, after signing up as shareholders of WNZ. However they will continue to receive six monthly accounts for the 15 cent WMDC which they are contracted to pay. It seems the only exit possibility for disaffected shareholders is to find a buyer for their shares, although these are infrequently traded.

 

The other cooperative option for wool growers is Primary Wool Cooperative which has been in existence for more than 40 years and has a 50% share of Elders Primary Wool, responsible for the Just Shorn brand sold into the United States for high end carpets. PWC has over 1000 members indicating a certain degree of satisfaction with the dividends and rebates paid, as well as the wool prices received. However there is limited evidence the Just Shorn initiative has added substantially to growers’ incomes, but as with Camira this may be a matter of time.

 

The wool merchants and private buyers admit they will be accused of bias, but they say there are no new markets for wool driving any real increase in the wool price, while the rise in the past two seasons is due to demand exceeding supply, as sheep numbers fall.

 

Like the meat industry, the big question for wool growers is what sort of industry they really want. For all the talk of the need for cooperative farmer ownership of the value chain, it still appears a majority of farmers are actually satisfied with their merchant or broker relationship. Otherwise surely they would all vote with their feet and send their clip exclusively to a farmer owned cooperative.

 

But this just doesn’t seem to be happening in sufficiently large numbers to create the desired change claimed by supporters of the new model. The collapse of the milk price may well have taken the wind out of the sails of proponents of a Fonterra like system for meat and wool.

Challenge for A&P Shows to satisfy demands of new public

February 8, 2015

The 148th Warkworth A&P Show was held on the Saturday of Auckland Anniversary Weekend on a very warm day with no fear of rain which at least alleviated the committee’s first concern. In the north at least feed is still plentiful, although rain would be welcome, but there is as yet no major worry of drought; so we were able to plan the event and welcome the weather forecast without a guilty conscience. Read the rest of this entry »

Silver Fern Farms release audited result just before Christmas

December 24, 2014

The delayed and much anticipated final result for Silver Fern Farms’ 2014 year has made it into the public arena in time for Christmas. Although it has squeaked in just above breakeven for the year at $1.8 million pre-tax and $0.5 million after tax, this is worse than the original guidance of $5-7 million announced at the end of October. Read the rest of this entry »

Two exciting years in a row

December 20, 2014

2014 and 2015 promise to be two of the most exciting years the red meat industry has seen for a long time and for a change the news is not all bad. There are some clouds around, but also silver linings like better beef and lamb prices, improved profitability and the possibility of positive developments in the industry’s structure.

 

At long last, after a slow start, there are plenty of signs the industry as a whole has recognised the need for change to address the main challenges of inadequate prices, declining sheep and beef numbers and excess capacity which have inexorably brought about land use conversions to more profitable activities.

 

The launch of the Red Meat Sector Strategy three years ago signalled the beginning of the change process which B+LNZ and the meat companies have adopted with support from the government funded Primary Growth Partnership projects. MIE has also gained traction during the past two years, having succeeded in gaining representation on the boards of Silver Fern Farms and Alliance as well as obtaining funding to develop its own industry reform strategy.

 

All these events and programmes have been happening against the background of an improving domestic economy and uneven global economic performance with Asia and North America doing better than Europe where political unrest has hindered the recovery. China has been the success story of the past year for the New Zealand red meat sector, providing an alternative export market for beef and particularly sheepmeat.

 

From the perspective of sector morale, it isn’t doing any harm to see sheep and beef returns outperforming the dairy industry for once. In spite of some retreat from the price peaks in the spring when product volumes were low, it is almost inevitable these returns will be better than the dairy payout during 2015 and quite possibly 2016 as well. The lower New Zealand dollar will be a help too.

 

But for all these encouraging signs, it won’t be all plain sailing for the red meat industry next year. There is already the strong possibility of drought conditions on the East Coast and some other regions, while trading conditions in major markets are uncertain. China has slowed, while many EU countries remain in recession and the Russian economy is in dire straits.

 

Meat processors and exporters all returned to profit during the 2014 year, although procurement prices will have to regain a greater sense of reality than has been the case in recent weeks, if 2015 is to allow a repeat performance. While lamb slaughter volumes are forecast to be about 20 million, not as low as 2011-12, but fewer than last season, the low milk payout will mean plenty of cull cows to process. If the US price holds up, the beef processors should be able to make hay to offset excessive lamb procurement costs.

 

Intriguingly both Silver Fern Farms and Alliance begin the year with new Chief Executives who will oversee some significant industry developments which will undoubtedly affect the companies they manage.

 

There are at least three big questions for the red meat sector in 2015:

  1. What will be the findings of MIE’s meat sector reform paper when it is published in February;
  2. Will farmers be prepared or financially able to invest further in ownership of the value chain; and
  3. What will be the outcome of Goldman Sachs’ investment recommendations to SFF’s board?

 

My suspicion is the key to the future shape and structure of the sector lies in strategic developments in the country’s largest red meat processor and exporter. The announcement has already been made about dividing SFF into product based business units which provides the opportunity to sell them individually, quite possibly to an overseas investor.

 

CEO Dean Hamilton has been very open about the company’s need for $100 million capital to reduce debt and allow further investment in its value added business. He also admitted in last week’s Farmers Weekly it was unlikely farmers would be able to stump up much of this capital in spite of a supportive response from supplier meetings. Five years ago the company succeeded in obtaining $22 million from suppliers invested in $1 shares which are now worth 40 cents, so there isn’t much chance of getting nearly five times the investment from existing shareholders, many of whom will already have lost 60% of their initial investment.

 

Unless Alliance or another local investor is willing to buy all or part of the SFF business which is unlikely, the alternative options appear inevitably to be from overseas. An external entrant to the sector would not welcome any constraints on its right to expand capacity. This would effectively derail any industry reform involving farmer investment in owning the value chain that MIE may envisage or that might be agreed as a result of the moratorium proposal.

 

Therefore 2015 will be exciting for participants and fascinating for observers with a strong probability we will all be much clearer about the future by this time next year.

Red meat sector confidence high, but lifting the average would seriously enhance earnings

December 20, 2014

The Rabobank Rural Confidence Survey conducted in November found confidence among sheep and beef farmers had risen from just under 50% to 75% since the previous survey the previous quarter. However the overall confidence level remained low because of pessimism among dairy farmers, although this was slightly better than the two year low in the previous survey. Read the rest of this entry »

Mymilk likely to get up noses of Fonterra shareholders

December 13, 2014

Fonterra has launched a new company called mymilkTM which is specifically designed to attract supply from South Island dairy farmers who don’t currently supply Fonterra. The website says it’s cooperative, but that’s a bit hard to see when the supplier has no obligation to buy any shares within five years and only has to sign a one year contract. Read the rest of this entry »

Moratorium would solve meat industry’s capacity problem

December 6, 2014

Word has got out suggesting some processors are in favour of a moratorium on new capacity as the only means of sorting out the meat industry’s excess capacity problem. It also appears MIE is initially supportive of the proposal, although it would need to be sure it was in farmers’ best interests before endorsing it completely.

 

My understanding is the moratorium would specifically prevent any new plants or chains operating on beef and sheepmeat around the country. This is where the plan is different from the previously floated concept of tradable slaughter rights (TSR) which proposed to set maximum permitted slaughter volumes for each processor. TSRs were supposed to enable whole plants or even companies to be closed with the costs of closure being financed by the sum paid to the owner.

 

But using slaughter volumes based on a historical average as the determining factor presents two large problems. First there was disagreement between processors on how to calculate individual company slaughter rights and second the scheme would have reduced farm gate competition at farmers’ expense.

 

The proposed moratorium would have several benefits: it would facilitate meat industry reform by providing a starting point for rationalisation, it would protect existing ownership rights, involving a willing buyer and willing seller, and it would preserve farm gate competition. A further benefit of this solution would be to encourage innovation because it quite deliberately puts no restriction on the number of shifts, chain speed or productivity gains on each chain. It would issue a licence for every beef and mutton chain with no new plants or chains permitted during the life of the scheme.

 

So a casual observer might ask what a moratorium would actually achieve, but on closer analysis there is an element of subtlety about such a scheme which would not necessarily produce immediate results. However over time the outcome would be beneficial for the overall efficiency of the industry without the pain of a more radical approach. It is important to recognise the reality that any restructure has a human cost, as chain closures inevitably imply job losses.

 

The government would have to introduce regulation to allow the moratorium to occur in the first place. This gets back to the government’s stated position which is ‘bring us a solution which is supported by the majority of the sector and we will be prepared to intervene.’ The key question therefore is whether or not the moratorium proposal would gain support from the majority, both farmers and processors.

 

If MIE gets behind the concept which I understand it is seriously considering, this would mobilise the farmer side of the equation. It would also be helpful if Beef + Lamb NZ and Federated Farmers also supported it. That leaves the processors who have traditionally found it hard to agree about anything. Therefore it is highly likely the scheme could fail to gain a sufficient level of processor support.

 

This is where MIE’s role will be extremely important, assuming it does a thorough analysis of the concept and decides to throw its full weight behind it. It may then be able to exert influence on the cooperatives through those board members who are sympathetic to MIE’s goals which may be a tipping point in helping to get this scheme adopted.

 

Therefore the most important part of this exercise is to ensure a thorough and robust assessment of the potential benefits and negatives of the introduction of a moratorium. This I suspect is what the government would insist on seeing, before it would take the risk of regulating the meat industry.

 

The proponents of this capacity moratorium appear to have thought through the potential fishhooks associated with the scheme. Chain licenses are site specific and cannot be transferred between sites because it is essential to prevent a new plant or chain opening up where a chain has been closed. It is critical to prevent freeloaders taking advantage of another company’s investment in rationalising capacity. The Commerce Commission would have oversight of the licensing scheme through an annual review similar to the Fonterra milk price regime. Existing foreign ownership of meat companies would be protected, but new investment would be subject to OIO restrictions.

 

I understand the suggestion is the moratorium should last for 12 years, unless an agreed trigger point of capacity reduction were reached sooner than that. This will be a point of contention, but clearly there must be a period of certainty to encourage investment.

 

The experience of the 1990s with Trial Run Holdings is relevant here. This involved the industry contributing jointly to the closure of Weddel’s plants, ensuring the equipment was sold overseas to prevent it being used again in New Zealand,. Rationalisation could equally be achieved by a group of companies funding the closure and disposal of identified excess capacity.

 

But after the Weddel’s closure there was no mechanism in place to prevent the entry of new capacity, either plants or chains. The net result was barely two years of relative peace with enough livestock for all companies, after which the industry descended once again into a state of procurement competition caused by new capacity coming on stream.

 

This is the best plan I have seen for addressing the excess capacity issue, because there is no compulsion and no automatic lessening of competition which could attract the attention of the Commerce Commission. I am hopeful, if not optimistic, this will be the solution MIE will support and could herald a new era for the meat industry.


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