Corn supplies expected to remain tight, prices high, Tyson CEO says

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Corn supplies following this autumn’s U.S. harvest likely will remain tight, keeping prices for the grain historically high, even with farmers expected to boost acreage this year, Tyson Foods Inc. executives said.

Cropland planted to corn this spring is expected to reach 92.2 million acres, up 4.5 percent from last year and the second-highest total since the end of World War II, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast released March 31.

But even if corn production jumps accordingly, “we will still have a very tight supply and demand scenario in 2011,” Donnie Smith, Tyson’s chief executive officer said during a May 9 conference call with reporters.

The corn market’s price lows for the upcoming harvest season “will be significantly higher than the new-crop lows in the previous year,” Smith said. The call followed the release of Tyson’s results for the company’s fiscal 2011 second quarter.

The Tyson CEO’s comments suggest overall corn demand will remain strong even with U.S. stockpiles on track to drop to 15-year lows. That partly reflects high use by livestock feeders keeping pace with stronger meat export markets. Additionally, ethanol distillers are using record amounts of corn as high oil prices boost fuel-makers’ margins.

As the largest U.S. poultry processor, Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson is also one of the biggest domestic corn buyers. In its quarterly earnings statement released May 9, Tyson said it expected to spend $500 million more on grain in 2011 compared with 2010.

That would be a nearly 13-percent increase over the approximately $4 billion the company spent on grain last year, according to an estimate by analyst Stephen Share, who’s with Morgan Joseph TriArtisan LLC in New York.

The corn market’s record rally this year fueled speculation that some livestock producers may be forced to find other feed options, such as lower-quality wheat, to avoid losses.

In the May 9 call, Tyson said it has secured its corn and soybean meal needs for the remainder of its fiscal 2011, which concludes at the beginning of October. The company has a “limited” amount of feed locked in for fiscal 2012, saying it’s too early in the U.S. growing season to have any idea how large the corn and soybean crops may be.

“We really don’t like to cross crop years” when buying feed, Smith said during the call. “There’s a lot of unknowns. It’s pretty dangerous to start buying the crop for the fall before you’ve planted the crop.”

Tyson executives wouldn’t say specifically how high corn prices would have to rise to prompt a shift to other feeds. But the company is “constantly in the market… looking for alternative feed ingredients,” Smith said.

In trading May 9, corn futures for December 2011 delivery, reflecting expectations for the fall harvest, rose 17 ¼ cents to $6.57 ½ a bushel. On April 20, December futures reached a life-of-contract high of $6.84. The December contract’s 2010 low is $3.82 ½, reached last June.

Tyson has been able to offset rising feed costs by charging higher prices for the beef, chicken and pork sold to its retail and foodservice customers. The company posted net income of $156 million during the quarter ended April 2, matching profit for the same period a year earlier.

Still, Tyson indicated profit margins face pressure in coming months amid high grain costs, and its executives also expressed caution over the economy, saying consumers are being squeezed by persistently high unemployment and gasoline near $4 a gallon.


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