UPDATE 2-NZ's Fonterra cuts farmgate milk prices as virus hits demand

* Fonterra says Dairy market outlook uncertain

* Shares up 1.7%

* China sales rebounds as economy gradually reopens (Adds analyst comment, shares, CEO comment from conference call)

May 21 (Reuters) - Fonterra said the coronavirus pandemic was “like nothing we’ve experienced before” as the world’s largest dairy exporter cut the price it pays farmers for milk for the upcoming season with demand crumbling due to virus-led restrictions.

“COVID-19 has affected virtually every country, market and industry, and as a result, the global dairy market is volatile and the outlook is uncertain,” Chief Executive Officer Miles Hurrell said in a statement.

But the third-quarter update on Thursday left investors, many of whom are farmers, pleased with shares up 1.7% to NZ$3.65, outpacing the broader market.

The Auckland-based company forecast a farmgate milk price between NZ$5.4 to NZ$6.9 per kilogram of milk solids (kgMS) for the 2020-21 season, lower than in the current season, which it revised to NZ$7.1-NZ$7.3, from NZ$7-NZ$7.60.

“In the bigger scheme of things, we’re looking at one of the biggest downturns in the global economy in the last century. If in that, farmers come out with a pay of $6 a kilo, they will probably be feeling quite pleased with it,” said Michael Gordon, a New Zealand-based senior economist at Westpac.

With much of the world still reeling from the impact of lockdowns, the food service sector in China, Fonterra’s top market and where the outbreak was first detected, is rebounding quickly and has largely returned to normal levels in March and April, the company said.

Fonterra, which has been re-focusing on New Zealand after an ill-fated global expansion, reported a near 59% jump in nine-month underlying operating profit to NZ$815 million ($500.8 million) due to agreed upon contracts in the current season.

Hurrell told a conference call later that Fonterra does not plan to lay off staff for the moment.

It maintained its full-year underlying earnings forecast of between 15 and 25 New Zealand cents per share.

$1 = 1.6273 New Zealand dollars Reporting by Shruti Sonal and Nikhil Kurian Nainan in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Kim Coghill