CoBank: Trade Talks, Record Rains Upend Agriculture

The world economy continues to slow amid the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. Hopes are for talks to resume soon between the U.S. and China, but confidence in the trade war ending in 2019 is dimming. Additionally, persistent rainfall across the U.S. has significantly disrupted the agriculture sector. Federal aid of $16 billion for additional trade relief and $3 billion for disaster relief, will help soften the blow for farmers, but not ag retailers.

The latest Quarterly Rural Economic Review from the CoBank Knowledge Exchange Division indicates that global economic development continues to slide as tariffs drag on global trade and manufacturing. Trade disputes still loom between the U.S. and China, the EU, Japan and Mexico, and progress has been slow, with no major trade victories yet.

The report states that the U.S. economy has been performing well, but there are warning signs despite impressive GDP growth in Q1 at 3.1 percent. Much of the growth was supported by an increase in inventories as companies braced for an escalation in the trade war with China. The pace of investment spending, manufacturing, and demand for capital goods have all eased in recent months, and the slowdown trend is widely expected to persist through the remainder of the year.

Financial stress for many in agriculture continues to build amid unprecedented uncertainty from trade disputes and weather disasters. Nearly all sectors of agriculture were affected last quarter by the inundation of spring rains that kept farmers out of fields throughout the U.S. The amount of acreage lost to prevented planting will remain the major unknown in the months ahead for ag commodities markets.

Grain, Biofuels and Farm Supply

Trade continues to create headwinds for U.S. grains and oilseeds. Domestic demand has not kept up with last year’s large corn supplies, but soybean crush has remained robust, taking advantage of low soybean prices.

Wet weather in the Midwest has significantly reduced corn production expectations. Corn planting progress has been the slowest on record due to the soaking-wet spring. The weather is also worrying some ethanol producers and has created headaches for the farm supply sector. Ethanol producers, already enduring one of the longest low-margin periods in years, are now facing the prospect of limited corn availability and higher corn prices. Ag retailers will continue to contend with the weak farm economy following a difficult fall agronomy season.

Beef

The U.S. cattle and beef sector have experienced very unusual weather thus far in 2019. Difficult winter weather pressured feed performance and steer and heifer weights and delayed corn and soybean planting, driving corn prices to multi-year highs. As a result, U.S. beef production declined by 0.8% in the last quarter. Now that weather is more typical in much of the cattle feeding region, weights have normalized. Exports have also been sluggish, declining almost 5% in the first quarter despite the slow supply growth at the start of the year. Shipments to Mexico remain strong but this has been more than offset by weaker volumes to Japan, Canada, and Hong Kong. In Japan, the tariff levels of the CPTPP have gone into effect, putting U.S. beef shipments to Japan at a disadvantage to Australian and Canadian beef. Exports to Hong Kong are also down more than 40% so far this year on a volume basis.

While this isn’t directly a tariff, it reflects the challenges Hong Kong importers have with purchasing beef from the U.S. as long as mainland China and the U.S. are at odds.

Weather will be the major question for U.S. beef for the remainder of 2019 and into 2020. Will the rain on the plains lead to improved forage conditions for cow-calf producers through the fall? What will be the impact of the delayed corn planting, which is the latest on record? Many producers through the Corn Belt are asking whether corn is even an option to plant this late in the season. This uncertainty has pushed December 2019 corn futures over $4 per bushel – greatly impacting current margins for cattle feeders and cow-calf producers. These elevated corn prices may very well bring any modest growth in 2020 into question.

Chicken and Pork

The U.S. animal protein sector continues to be affected by factors largely outside of the control of producers and processors. Weather, African Swine Fever, and trade threats have disrupted the U.S. animal protein sector. In particular, the outbreak of African Swine Fever will impact not just pork but the overall animal protein trade for years to come.

An expected decline in Chinese pork production will spur a surge of beef, pork, and chicken imports into China as it tries to fill a shortfall in animal protein supply that no single pork-producing country will be able to fill. Hog prices and feed costs indicate healthy margins for producers through 2020, but that could change quickly if pork exports do not pick up.

Through the first four months of the year, chicken exports were down approximately 1 percent but leg quarter prices have increased from 28 cents per pound at the beginning of the year to near 50 cents per pound. With more normal weather expected for the rest of the summer and this fall, and with new poultry plants ramping up production, signs point to protein supply growth to pick up in the second half of 2019. The most significant development for U.S. chicken exports would be the reopening of China, which banned U.S. poultry four years ago over avian flu, but is expected to reopen if a trade deal between the U.S. and China is announced

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