Milk cow productivity is showing signs of increasing at a slower pace than has been typical since the start of the new millennium. USDA-National Agriculture Statistical Service (NASS) has not released data on milk production for December yet, but after the first eleven months, the total for the year is on track to be up slightly more than 200 pounds per cow, or about 1%, from 2017. In 2017, milk cow output increased 166 pounds per animal. Since 2010 the annual average increase has been 271 pounds and since 2000, the annual increase has been 279 pounds. The modest increase in milk output in 2017 was a consequence of two consecutive years (2015 and 2016) of significant declines in milk prices with an increase in 2017 that recaptured only a minor portion of value lost in the prior years. The rebound in milk prices last year along with minimal increases in corn and soybean prices provides some of the rationale for milk cow productivity rebound in 2018.
Milk prices for 2018, referencing the USDA calculated price received by farmers, slipped about a $1.50 per cwt. from the year before. Actual values for November and December are yet to be released by the USDA, delayed by the partial government shutdown. The annual price is expected to be slightly above $16 per cwt., close to the average price in 2010 and probably the lowest price since 2009. The 2018 average price should temper advances in milk cow productivity in 2019, but not enough to result in declining output per cow. LMIC expects per cow milk output in 2019 to be up 160 pounds. The milk cow herd in November (latest available data) was down 38,000 head from a year earlier. LMIC is projecting the January-March milk cow herd to be 32,000 head less than a year earlier. Combined with a 0.7% increase in milk cow productivity, total milk production during the first quarter of 2019 is expected to be 200 million pounds higher, or 0.4% from the same quarter in 2018. The USDA reported milk price received by farmers for the quarter should average slightly above $16 per cwt. which compares to a $15.67 per cwt. price in the first three months of 2018. Class III milk prices (cheese market milk) have been weak compared to other grades of milk, and that should continue to the case, as large inventories of cheese in cold storage depress prices in the January-March quarter of 2019.