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Dairy Markets Wrestle with Tight Supplies and Waning Demand

As indications of slower milk output came to the fore, milk futures climbed. Dairy producers will cash some record-shattering milk checks next month, as May Class III and IV contracts are both a little above $25 and the Class I base price is $25.45.

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The dairy markets are still concerned about demand. Global milk output is growing slowly and dairy product inventories are not burdensome. But tight supplies are not enough to lift the market when prices are already quite lofty. Consumption must be healthy too.

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For months, the dairy markets have focused on shrinking global milk output and barriers to rapid expansion. Tight supplies pushed dairy prices to record highs. Now, concerns about demand have come to the fore.

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Dairy markets moved this way and that without much conviction this week. Prices are historically lofty, but not high enough to bring on a lot of new milk in a world of $8 corn and $2,000 springers. At what point do high prices hinder demand?

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Milk powder was especially weak and whole milk powder (WMP) prices fell 4.4%, logging their third straight decline. Skim milk powder (SMP) suffered its first setback at the GDT since July. U.S. milk output has fallen short of the prior year for six of the past seven months, its longest such streak since 2009.

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Cheese output continues to outpace every other year on record, but, due to persistent supply chain issues, it is lower than it could be. For months, cheese makers and other dairy processors have struggled to find the materials, truck drivers, and staff they need to run at capacity, and there is no relief in sight.

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Even as milk production expands seasonally, volumes are tending to run at or below prior year levels. This supports the notion that even though milk prices remain historically strong, the increased pressure caused by rising operating costs gives producers continued margin concerns.

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Last week, Q2 Class III contracts summited briefly, but the air was too thin and they quickly pulled back from the highs. Class III futures tumbled early in the week, but on Wednesday they found their footing and began to plod upward once again.

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Strong cheese and butter prices propelled the futures to new highs. U.S. milk output dropped to just over 17.5 billion pounds in February, 1% less than the year before and the fourth straight year-over-year decline. The January and February milk production shortfalls represent the steepest U.S. deficits since 2009.

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Demand is robust from both manufacturers and bottlers though Class I demand is expected to wane in the coming weeks as schools begin to rotate through spring breaks. More universally, however, a persistent shortage of truck drivers and escalating fuel costs are exacerbating logistical challenges.

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Dairy producers cannot afford to pay this much for feed unless milk prices remain high. The market is well aware that global dairy stocks are relatively low, and that output is shrinking. So, for now, milk prices are climbing nearly step for step with the feed market to deter further declines in milk production.

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