People love to be offered options in life, up to a certain point. Unfortunately, if they are faced with too many options or ones that they do not understand, the choices available to them become overwhelming. Actually, that may describe the current situation with Milk Options. There are so many options available that the choices can, indeed, be confusing. Several years ago, I wrote an article for the Western Dairy Business publication centered upon what I felt were the “Top 10” steps to take in preparation for the coming year. One of the most critical of these steps was the development of a Milk Marketing Plan.  This is an absolute must today, particularly with the increasing amount of volatility and fluctuation in milk prices. Understanding your break-even price level (check out: today) and knowing how to position your business to achieve that price will continue to be essential to your financial future. Get involved in your own marketing plan by working with an options broker that you trust. He or she can be invaluable to your business. About the same time, I also had an opportunity to moderate a panel of Agricultural Lenders in a discussion on the availability of financing. One of the recurring themes that seemed to surface was the issue of whether or not a producer should be using milk options, also known as Puts and Calls, in the management of their dairy business. Their response was unanimous. About the same time, I was asked to describe a scenario when I felt it would be smart to make use of a Call Option. When would it be wise to make use of a Put Option? In a moment, I’ll share my response to those two questions as well. However, I feel it is important to consider what all “options” are about. Who, in fact, needs them? The key to successfully using milk options revolves around a task known as “Margin Management.” You may know this as “Risk Management.” Several of our lenders on the panel emphasized how important they felt that was for any borrower. Their explanation covered some of the aspects of how you should use milk options to almost ensure that your margin is more positive. Our lenders also discussed a term called your “Burn Rate.” This is the rate at which you will eliminate your entire Net Worth if you continue to lose money each month. For example, if you milk 2,000 cows that produce 70 pounds per cow per day, you will produce about 42,000 hundredweights in a thirty day month (2,000 X 70 X 30 / 100). If you have a Net Worth of $2,000,000 and are losing $2.00 per cwt, your Burn Rate is about 24 months ($2,000,000 / $84,000). In other words, you could potentially operate for about two years at that rate of loss until you ran out of Equity. Your lender would much prefer that you consider making reductions in your costs or somehow place a “floor” under your milk price prior to that occurring. That is what you can accomplish by using a “Put Option.” The Put places a floor under the price you receive. Puts are all priced using Class 3 Federal prices, which can create some issues in California, Idaho and possibly several other states due to the difference in basis. These states’ systems may be somewhat correlated with the Federal Pricing system. However, they do not match it. By purchasing Put Options through a broker affiliated with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), you essentially put a floor under your milk receipts/cwt on the portion of your milk you cover. If you purchase a Put Option for $15/cwt milk for June 2010 and the Federal Order Milk price at the end of June lands at $14/cwt, you will still receive the $14/cwt from your Cooperative. However, you will also receive the difference in a separate check from the CME ($1.00/cwt e.g.). If, on the other hand, the market price comes in higher than the level your Put Option is set at, it expires unused, and you only lose the cost of the premium you paid for that Put. This is an extremely simplified example of how Put Options work. You can only purchase these through licensed, qualified brokers, for good reason, but there are many great firms out there for you to access. Why would you use Puts? Let me give you four reasons: 1.) Your loan renewal is coming up, and your banker is worried about your projected profit/cwt. 2.) Your “Burn Rate” is looking rather small. 3.) You are a young producer just getting started and need to be certain that you protect your bottom line. The use of options may help. 4.) You are highly leveraged, either as a result of past losses incurred or due to a recent expansion you’ve undertaken. How about using “Call Options” in your dairy business? These allow you to “buy” milk at the CME (not literally) at a pre-set price. Primarily, I see these used when a milk buyer offers a “Fixed Price Contract” for your milk. If, for example, you agreed to a $15/cwt price with your milk buyer for the next 12 months and during that same time period the Federal Class 3 Milk Price climbed to $18/cwt, you would still only get $15 from the buyer of your milk. What can you do? If you simultaneously have Call Options in place for some level such as $15, they will allow you to buy milk at $15 when it is worth $18/cwt, allowing you to collect the difference from the CME. This information covers only the basics of what you need to know before using Milk Options. However, I think it is important to consider how they might benefit you by smoothing out the highs and lows of the dairy industry. The easy days of managing dairy prices and margins are over. It will be critical to your future that you master the art of margin management, which requires knowing your true cost of production, particularly on feed, with which you can also use options (Hint: See If you have developed a better system, I hope you succeed greatly with it. However, for most producers, options offer the best insurance against devastating losses. Talk to some brokers and other dairy producers who have actually used them and develop a plan. A number of my Clients used a combination of Options and Fixed Price Contracts with their milk buyers during 2009 & 2015. Several Clients averaged almost $16/cwt for their milk and netted out over $2.00/cwt before their personal draws from the business. This was excellent, but, more importantly, it happened because they’d set themselves up to have more “options!”