Friday, October 19, 2018
 Wisconsin’s Whey Processors Showing Patience As Prices Continue to Decline  

Whey processors in Wisconsin  have been gritting their teeth while watching nonfat dry whey prices drop nearly 67 percent to less than 23 cents a pound during a steady decline that has lasted 79 painful weeks and doesn’t appear ready to let up.


Equally as bad are state whey exports through the first nine months that were 42 percent lower than during the same period in 2014, according to data from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.


“We’re in this thing for the long term. This is just a cycle we’re going to ride out,” said Doug Wilke, senior vice president for dairy ingredient for Baraboo-based Foremost Farms USA, which is one of the state’s largest whey producers.


A struggling whey market is just as much a concern to the Wisconsin economy as when milk, cheese, grain or any other top agricultural markets struggle.


Whey production and processing account for more than 16,300 jobs in the state and exports of whey — which is used for everything from sports and infant nutrition to food ingredients and animal feed — were valued at $164 million in 2014, or 34.2 percent of the state’s dairy exports, according to two reports completed for DATCP.


The latest down cycle that began in July 2014 was due to a supply-and-demand problem in the global market exacerbated by an increase in production by milk and cheese producers in Wisconsin and other big dairy states, most experts believe.


“I don’t expect, personally, that we’re going to see any improvement in prices — in fact, they may be worse — in the first quarter of 2016,” said Mark Stephenson, UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability director. “But by the time we get deep into the second half of 2016, maybe the third quarter, I think we’re likely to start seeing this pick up again.”


The biggest problem is China. The leading importer of Wisconsin whey by a large margin in 2014 is in serious risk of being overtaken by Canada in 2015, according to DATCP data.


Through the first nine months of 2015, China had cut imports of state whey products by 65.7 percent — or 30 million tons — and that allowed Canada to shoot ahead as the top importer even though it had cut its whey purchases by 16.8 percent — or more than 5 million tons.


So, through September, Canada had accounted for 34 percent of the state’s whey exports while China had slipped to 20.7 percent. That was nearly a complete reversal from 2014 when China accounted for 35 percent of the state’s whey exports and Canada was at 23.7 percent, the DATCP data showed.


Nationally, total whey exports were down 11 percent through last November, according to a U.S. Dairy Export Council report.


One reason for the decline in state whey exports to China was the decision by millions of that country’s hog farmers to get out of the business, which resulted in the culling of more than 100 million hogs over the past 18 months, according to a report by Rabobank International. That is equal to the herds of Mexico, the United States and Canada combined.


“Hog farmers in China bought a lot of whey to feed their animals. No hogs, no need for whey,” said John Umhoefer, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director.


The U.S. market also got increased competition from the European Union, which looked for new business partners after its inventories grew due to Russia’s embargo.


“We’ve got a lot of product not just in our market but in world markets and we just have to sweat some of that out. We have some soft demand,” Stephenson said.


What made matters worse was that since milk and cheese production kept increasing in 2015, whey production had to keep increasing, too, because it’s part of the cheese process.


Some whey processors, like Foremost, process whey from cheese they make. Others buy it from cheesemakers.


“And it kept coming. So we had to process whey in the market in some months when we didn’t have sales for it,” Wilke said. “So inventories were built and it took some time to work down those inventories to find markets for the product.”


Wilke believes that few, if any, whey-processing businesses made money in 2015. It was also a tough year for cheesemakers who sold their whey.


“There are some products that you put in a specialty category that have done OK, but generally throughout the whole complex it has not been a profitable year for most products,” he said.


But none of the blows has been fatal to Wisconsin’s whey processors, Umhoefer said. That’s because most of the processing is done by large companies such as Foremost, Agri-Pur and Sargento.


“This isn’t a company-failure issue. It’s a hurting-the-bottom-line issue,” Umhoefer said.


Whey processors are patient because they’ve seen this type of volatility in the past. For instance, prices for nonfat dry whey dropped 81 percent to 15 cents a pound for whey during a 93-week period that began in 2007 and ended in early 2009, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service reports.


The market recovered and eventually climbed to a high of 71 cents a pound in early 2012.


“By the time we got into mid-2009, we were around 30 cents a pound and it climbed pretty quickly to 40 cents a pound and 50 cents a pound. That 50-60 cents a pound we enjoyed for a few years was more the anomaly than the low prices we were at right now,” Stephenson said.


He believes whey prices could stabilize somewhere around 35 cents a pound and that processors can make money with those prices. “I don’t know what normal means anymore, we’ve had so much volatility,” Stephenson said.


“Prices at 30-40 cents are more typical than the 70-80 cents that we’ve seen or the low 20s. Those are extremes.”


Wilke and Stephenson believe that the whey market will begin to rebound after whey processors focus on producing more higher-protein, higher-value products that are coveted by domestic and international customers.


Lower value sweet whey powder used for cooking and baking, and nutrition supplements once dominated the markets but it has now taken a backseat to higher value whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate used for sports nutrition, weight loss and pharmaceuticals.


New formulas are being worked on all the time at the UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research.


Through the first six months of 2015, combined whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate volume accounted for 57 percent of total whey exports.


Also, U.S. whey protein isolate exports through November were up 31 percent while dry whey was down 22 percent compared to the same time period in 2014, according to the dairy export council report.


That’s because no other single ingredient can improve muscle tone, prevent stunting, change body composition, stimulate body synthesis and growth, address abdominal fat and lower incidence of low birth weight, said Veronique Lagrange, the dairy export council’s vice president of strategy and insights. “Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition,” she added.


Meantime, Wisconsin’s whey processors continue to show patience and honor the first name of the little girl who many believe inspired her stepfather and entomologist, Dr. Thomas Muffet, to write the nursery rhyme more than 400 years ago.


However, the processors aren’t running away from their problems as Patience did when she saw that spider while eating her curds and whey.


“We’ll get through this just fine, and we’ll learn from it,” Wilke said. “We’ll do things a little different and get better at it.”


Source: Wisconsin State Journal


Posted on Thursday, January 21, 2016 (Archive on Thursday, January 28, 2016)
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