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Where to from here for barley?

Ben Langford, March 20, 2018

WE ARE heading into another season of winter-crop planting, so it’s a good time to start thinking about where prices may be in 10-12 months.  Are you making planting decisions based on a forward prediction of commodity prices, or making decisions based on crop margins from our last crop year?

There is no doubt that sustained demand for feed barley out of China has inflated values and gross margins, and therefore, the grain’s value is above other commodities such as pulses and canola. While there are agronomic factors to consider, in anyone’s mind, barley area will increase at the likely expense of pulses and canola.

Based on this, traders around the world are all asking the same question: How much will global barley area increase this year? Just as farmers have started looking for a view to forward-pricing the commodity, traders are looking for an outlook on area and production to form a view on pricing.

Something well publicised in the past is China’s sustained demand for feed barley, and its tightening effect on available supplies from Australia. In reality, it appears China’s demand for feed barley is not diminishing. Although less barley may be imported by China this year from all origins, it is due to a lack of supply rather than a lack of demand. Accordingly, if we increase planted area globally, there is still the demand to be able to buy the extra tonnes produced. The question is: At what price?

Global barley production estimates for 2017/18 are near 145 million tonnes (Mt). ABARES has suggested the increase in area globally could be around 3 per cent, which means the increase in production is only 4-5Mt. Given global demand this year, an increase like this could be absorbed into the balance sheet quite easily. In Australia, an increase of 3pc on last year’s crop is not so big. If favourable conditions prevail, as was the case in 2016/17, then an increase of 3pc becomes a substantial increase.

For Australian grain growers, there is still a lot of market activity to take place between planting and harvest. Forward selling for next year, weather factors, the northern hemisphere’s harvest, and marketing decisions will cause numerous ups and downs before next year’s crop is even in the bin. The good news is that this will present opportunities for everyone.

It is normal at this time of year for there to be more questions than answers when talking about next season’s barley crop. In simple terms, there will be plenty of time to think about what to plant and when to market.

This week’s market commentary was provided by COFCO International’s Melbourne-based barley trader, Ben Langford.

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