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USDA Unveils 2022 Agriculture Census Findings

USDA released its 2022 Census of Agriculture earlier this week, providing the latest installment of the once-every-five-year report on the state of agriculture in the country. Unsurprisingly the report showed that farm numbers have fallen while expenses have risen, and the average American farmer has aged. But the report provided some encouraging information, as well. Total farm income rose by 39.8% compared to five years ago, while average farm income increased by 50.2%.

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After a period of exuberance, the dairy markets ran into some resistance this week. Though milk supplies are far from plentiful, demand for spot milk has stabilized and combined with a lackluster demand picture, there has been little incentive over the last few days to push the markets further upward.

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With the benefit of hindsight, USDA now believes there were many fewer dairy heifers on hand at the beginning of 2023 than previously thought. In its biannual Cattle inventory report, the agency slashed its estimate of the dairy heifer headcount on January 1, 2023 by 263,600 head.

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Milk production growth in the U.S. sputtered at the end of 2023, leaving the full year result nearly unchanged from the year prior. After expanding during the first half of the year, volumes contracted between July and December as milk prices remained under pressure.

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A blast of cold air from Canada reached as far south as Texas this week, closing schools, freezing pipes, sidelining milk trucks, and disrupting dairy processing.

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The dairy trade is feeling around for the bottom in the cheese market. Cheese output remains robust, but low prices have finally attracted international attention. U.S. cheese exports topped 85 million pounds in November, the highest-ever volume for the month, up 3% from the previous monthly high, logged in November 2022. Once again, record-setting shipments to Mexico helped to offset softer demand from Japan and South Korea.

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Mild winter conditions across most of the country have supported milk production though margins remain thin, especially for producers in the western U.S. Milk remains readily available for manufacturers.

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There was a decided lack of Christmas cheer in the Class III markets this week. The January through April contracts scored life-of-contract lows. December Class III settled at $16.09 per cwt., promising Scrooge-like margins on the farm. January and February Class III looked even worse. This week January tumbled 47ȼ to $15.43 and February plummeted 54ȼ to $15.60.

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January Class III futures dipped below the $16 mark, a level signaling plenty of red ink on the farm as well. Unfortunately, Class III prices will have a greater influence on most milk checks. Ever-expanding cheese production capacity, lower milk powder output, and depooling will water down the share of dairy producer revenue derived from the higher Class IV market.

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Cheese vats remain full, despite lower milk output. U.S. cheese production reached 1.19 billion pounds in October, up 0.8% from the year before. Given the continued investment in U.S. cheese production capacity, cheese output is likely to grow for the foreseeable future, to the detriment of U.S. cheese and Class III prices. But the details of U.S. cheese production offered some fodder for the bulls. In October, cheesemakers shifted milk into fresh cheeses like cream cheese and Neufchatel (+6.8% year-over-year), cottage cheese (+13%), Hispanic cheeses (+5.7%), ricotta (+12.2%) and Mozzarella (+2.3%).

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U.S. milk production slumped deeper into the red in October as poor margins and tight heifer supplies trimmed the dairy herd. Production grew at a healthy clip in the Mideast, and the Midwest and Northeast contributed moderate growth. But output was down hard in the Northwest, Southwest, and California.

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