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U.S. Milk Cowherd: First Downtick in Seven Quarters
The U.S. milk cow herd has been expanding at a steady pace (measured in tenths of a percent) since the spring of 2016. That trend came to an end in late 2017. December data is not available yet, but the November herd count was unchanged from October, so the first two months of that quarter showed a decline of 6,000 cows from the summer quarter average. The November milk cow herd was pegged at 9.397 million head by USDA-NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service). Milk production for the final quarter of 2017 should still be up from a year earlier by about 1%, however, as milk cow productivity is improving at a faster rate than the small reduction in milk cow numbers.
 
The decline in milk cows late in the year mirrors milk price trends that developed as the year progressed. Milk prices at the farm as reported by USDA-NASS started the year out above $18.00 per cwt., the highest first-quarter average since 2014. Spring quarter milk prices averaged $16.83 and then moved up in a typical seasonal manner to $17.70 in the summer. As such, this was the biggest winter-to-summer milk price decline since 2008 (by $.04 per cwt.). Milk prices during the last quarter of 2017 were holding steady through October and November but were under pressure during December. The Class III Milk price went from $16.88 per cwt. in November to $15.44 in December, foretelling a big decline in the All Milk price reported by USDA-NASS for December, which will be published at the end of this month.
 
Underlying the recent trend in U.S dairy market conditions is a glut of milk products on a global basis. USDA-FAS (Foreign Agriculture Service) reported in late December that large European Union (EU) skim milk powder intervention stocks continued to increase during 2017, to the point where the continued marketprice support efforts could not be maintained as mandated in the 2013 Common Agriculture Policy agreement. Skim milk powder prices in Western Europe fell over 20% from July to the end of November and prospects for a recovery in early 2018 do not appear likely, given the decision by the EU to limit price support efforts in the milk powder market.
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