WOOSTER — It might be more costly thanks to an extensive avian flu outbreak earlier this year, but there should be no shortage of turkey for Thanksgiving this year.
Still, other segments of the poultry industry are taking longer to rebound, said a poultry specialist with The Ohio State University.
“The good news is the avian flu hit early enough in the year, and since most whole turkeys you buy at Thanksgiving are hens, there was sufficient time for a lot of the farms to be repopulated,” said Mike Lilburn, professor of animal sciences with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Lilburn is also unit supervisor with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Poultry Research Center and is a poultry specialist with Ohio State University Extension. OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of the college.
Female turkeys generally take 16 to 18 weeks to grow to 22-25 pounds, when they are normally harvested to provide an 18-20 pound bird at retail. Since the most recent outbreak of avian flu occurred in the late spring, turkey producers have had enough time to begin to restock and grow turkeys for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, Lilburn said.
However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last month that turkey prices were expected to rise to $1.31 to $1.37 per pound this fall, about 20 cents higher than last year.
According to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, between December 2014 and June 2015, the highly pathogenic avian influenza was detected in 21 states, with 211 commercial and 21 backyard poultry operations affected.
When a bird at any facility is diagnosed with the flu, the entire flock has to be culled. In 2015, this has resulted in the loss of 7.5 million turkeys and 42.1 million egg-layer and pullet chickens, the USDA said.
“If you look at Iowa, which had approximately 50 million (egg) laying hens, they lost almost half that number because of avian flu,” Lilburn said.
In addition, Jennie-O Turkey Store, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corporation and one of the nation’s largest turkey producers, lost so much of its production that it had to go to one shift in one of its processing plants in Minnesota in the spring, Lilburn said.
The heat of the summer and increased biosecurity measures at poultry facilities both had a hand in halting the spread of the flu, but it’s the increased security that will stave off a recurrence, Lilburn said.
“The industry is really aware of what happened in Iowa and Minnesota,” he said.
“Biosecurity at poultry facilities has tightened so much that it’s probably easier to break out of prison than it is to get on a commercial poultry farm.”
Now, the industry remains in a regrowth stage, Lilburn said.
Repopulating tom turkeys will take longer than female turkeys as they are normally grown to about 45 pounds, which takes nearly five months, or about 19 weeks, he said. Male turkeys are grown for their breast meat, which is used primarily for further processed turkey deli meat that is sold to restaurants and wholesalers and which consumers buy at deli counters and as packaged lunchmeat.
In addition, the poultry industry is working to increase chicken and egg production.
“The overall price of eggs has skyrocketed,” Lilburn said.
The USDA reported that egg prices in the third quarter this year averaged $2.36 a dozen, up 82 percent from last year. Consumers might notice a shortage of jumbo-sized eggs, because larger eggs tend to be laid by older hens.
Lilburn said the egg shortage is being especially felt in the supply — and cost — of pasteurized liquid egg product, particularly that sold to commercial clients.
“Breaker egg prices, which are used for pasteurized egg products, are still super high,” he said.