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November market report: Why milk production needs to go negative

Early this year, we highlighted the combination of too much milk on the market and mysteriously low demand. Now, demand is stronger. So why haven't prices improved?

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Now that an updated trilateral free trade agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada is tentatively in place, dairy industry players are combing through the details to get a sense of what will happen once the terms of the deal become effective in 2020.

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News that American and Mexican trade authorities reached a tentative agreement on an updated NAFTA was welcomed by the dairy industry with open arms. But it's far from a sure thing: If Canada doesn't also buy into the deal, a new NAFTA will be sunk.

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It’s strange how much can change over the course of a year and yet we end up almost where we started. Here we are again at the end of summer, back to talking about a butterfat shortage in Europe.

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It become obvious this spring and summer that the dairy industry was climbing out of the bearish period that marked late 2017 and early 2018, even in the face of tariffs and trade uncertainty. But as we dig a bit deeper, we've noticed a different trend, one which bodes far worse over the long term than tariffs.

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When Mexico announced its retaliation to U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in early June, those affected by new tariffs predictably flipped out. It included the dairy industry, as cheese was among products newly subject to levies. But is the industry’s frantic reaction warranted?

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Recent moves and counter moves in international trade have everyone nervous about how new tariffs announced by the Chinese and American governments will affect their ability to do profitable business in a global economy. Dairy is no exception. But an examination of what key players are actually doing will show that threatening rhetoric may not reflect reality.

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Last month, we reported on increased interest in American cheeses from buyers abroad. It led us to believe there is potential for some good to come out of several months in a row of bad news for dairy markets. This month, we’re taking stock of the situation as the peak of the spring flush nears.

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Domestic supply remains somewhat long, prices remain depressed, demand remains weak and American dairy farmers are seeing month after month of lackluster milk checks. But one market segment —U.S. cheese exports— is showing signs of strength.

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Dairy markets in the U.S. are still stagnant. And, as we’ve reported for many months now, part of the problem is there’s just too much milk flooding the market. But there’s a demand problem, too, and demand problems are much harder to solve. That’s especially true when the economy is strong, like it is now.

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There are plenty of reasons why dairy markets in the U.S. remain sluggish, but it’s partly due to the European Commission's decision to lift milk production quotas that had been in place for EU member states since 1984. It wasn’t clear how much more milk would flood the market, but Europe is the largest milkshed in the world. There was bound to be an impact.

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