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August market report: Butter might be the bright spot—again

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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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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