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March market report: U.S. cheese exports are heating up

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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Without a doubt, the American dairy industry has benefited greatly since NAFTA became effective in 1994. In fact, agriculture in the U.S. has been the biggest beneficiary of the deal. But President Donald Trump’s pledge to renegotiate NAFTA shortly after he took office put its future in sudden limbo.

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After months of relative stability in the market, nonfat dry milk prices plummeted five cents in nine days in October. Normally, this is the time to make holiday orders and prepare for next year’s contracts. That activity sends signals to the market responsible for its cyclical wintertime peak. But none of those signals has come.

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It’s early fall. That typically means dairy markets begin tightening up as milk production wanes post-flush; normally, draw-downs start on inventories built in spring and summer. But this time around, something is off. The only remarkable thing about dairy markets right now is how unremarkable they are. What’s the deal?

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The beginning of October is a key time in the dairy industry as buyers start placing holiday orders and markets begin to move the way we always expect them to ahead of a more festive time of year. But a mild summer kept milk supplies longer than normal deeper into the season. Even rallying butter prices lost their momentum. Will a somewhat strange end to the summer lead to any surprises in markets toward the tail end of this year?

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We’re in the thick of the summer doldrums. It’s expected during these mid-summer weeks that dairy markets do not move much. And they haven’t. But the doldrums don’t mean there’s nothing interesting going on. Dairy industry observers are intrigued by notably sluggish retail and consumer cheese sales even though summertime usually means those sales should be peaking.

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By far the most noteworthy dairy market at the moment is butter. While butter typically peaks in late summer and early autumn, a surge in domestic spot prices that began in mid-April continues, sending prices from $2.0625 to over $2.7000 per pound by mid-June. And there’s no sign —at least for now— that indicates prices may fall back in the coming weeks. So how high will butter go? 

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