Farmers and ranchers face risk every day. Individual producers have tools to mitigate risk, such vaccination and irrigation, but never have complete control over production outcomes. Price risk is one example of the many types of risk that can influence farm income. “Uncertainty” characterizes a situation where outcomes are unknown, while “risky” characterizes situations where potential outcomes are known or understood, but different outcomes can occur.
For cow-calf producers that are calving now or within the next few months, production (breeding) decisions were made over nine months ago. However, it will be another six months, or longer, that most producers receive any income. Predicting market prices at breeding is highly uncertain: it’s difficult to know what markets will be like a year and a half in advance. By calving, market predictions or expected prices for feeder cattle have been established through futures markets: this is a risky situation rather than an uncertain situation. While futures prices are not a guarantee of a particular market price, they provide information about likely price outcomes.
Price risk is not about whether expected prices are high or low, but whether market prices are different than expected. What does it mean for a price to be different than expected? Let’s say a producer calves in April and plans to sell in October. Today October feeder futures are around $185/cwt. In other words, $185 is the expected market price for October 2022, or $185/cwt is best estimate we have for average national prices in October, based on currently available information. The price risk faced by the producer is that when October arrives, prices may have dropped below $185/cwt. If prices decrease by October, will the producer still be able to make a profit?