A tattered 1979 paperback edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary defines context as “-noun, the parts just before a word or passage, that determine its meaning.”
Hop ahead to 2016, and Webster’s on-line definition adds “the situation in which something happens: the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens.”
We have been blessed with beautiful, warm, sunny weather in early November. Trees which held on to their leaves longer than usual combined with a delay in fall coloring has made for an unusual start to the month — appreciated by most everyone.
The exceptions are the gloom and doomers. Instead of enjoying the beautiful weather, they urge anyone who will listen to “enjoy it now, because we are in for a horrible winter.”
This is where context comes in. WFMJ TV’s Chief Meteorologist Eric Wilhelm recently shared his winter 2016-17 forecast with the Mahoning Valley Landscape and Nursery Association at the Mahoning County Extension Office.
Since they were in a meeting room that is, literally, right outside my office, I pulled up a chair to listen.
Understand, these are guys that make money by putting plows on the front of their trucks and pushing snow all winter, so our hopes about the potential for snow this winter were very different!
Wilhelm does predict that we will have a colder, wetter winter than last year. To put that in context, let’s look at last winter. The Mahoning Valley snowfall recorded at the airport in Vienna (Trumbull County) totaled 45 inches.
This was 15 inches below average, and the lowest snowfall in the area since 2001-02. The average temperature was 5.3°F above normal led by December of 2015 which was 12° warmer than average.
How do meteorologists come up with these forecasts? Wilhelm shared three tools that he uses: analogs, computer models and experience/intuition.
The use of analogs involves evaluating what winter actually looked like in years with similar ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions leading up to the winter season.
He indicated that computer modeling continues to improve and is a valuable part of the forecasting process.
Finally, personal experience with a region’s weather and with forecasting improves the chances of getting it right. Forecasting the weather and forecasting the price of milk are both challenging.
In the case of forecasting a milk price, perhaps impossible.
That said, if we look at the context in which our milk price will be set, we can get an idea if it is likely go up or down, be above average or below. Three factors that heavily influence our milk price are cow numbers, milk per cow and exports.
Dairymarkets.org is an excellent website for all things related to the price of milk. According to their regularly updated graphs, US dairy cow numbers are the highest they have been in at least 4 years at over 9.3 million.
That decimal is very important. Right now we have at least .1 million too many cows. Those too-many cows are also making too much milk. While we are in a typical seasonal decline in milk production, milk per cow is still at its highest level in the past 4 years.
Where does all that milk go?
If price is to be strong and stable, milk has to be purchased. We have more than enough milk to fill domestic demand. To reach and maintain a profitable milk price, we have to export milk or milk products.
While cow numbers and milk per cow are up, exports are down. The total value of US exports has averaged about $320 million dollars per month in 2016. Of course, these levels are the lowest seen in the last four years.
Contrast current levels with 2014 when exports reached a high of nearly $680 million in March. Even more challenging is that 2016 exports have been remarkably flat.
At this time, there is no hint of future price improvement due to exports trending up. In the context of cow numbers, milk production per cow, and exports, don’t expect a major change in milk prices any time soon.
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