Spared from avian influenza outbreaks in 2015, Mississippi’s poultry industry benefitted significantly from higher egg prices but still felt the pinch from export declines.

Preliminary estimates indicate a 3.4 percent increase in the state’s poultry value. The largest growth is an almost 40 percent increase for eggs. Chickens (replacement egg layers) may be up 5 percent, and broilers were near even with a 0.4 percent increase, according to recent estimates from the Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension Service.

Extension agricultural economist Brian Williams said poultry remains the state’s largest agricultural commodity for the 21st year. Total poultry value is $3.2 billion, which included $2.9 billion for broilers, $328 million for eggs and $7 million for chickens used as laying hens. Poultry ranked ahead of the estimated $1.2 billion forest industry and $930 million soybean commodity.

“The highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak primarily hurt turkey and egg production, and most of the outbreaks were in Minnesota and Iowa,” Williams said. “Most of Mississippi’s industry is broiler production, but we are also home to Cal-Maine, the nation’s largest egg production company.”

None of the Cal-Maine facilities across the country experienced an outbreak in 2015. The egg shortage caused by the outbreak bolstered prices for companies that were able to maintain production.

“Last Thanksgiving, a dozen eggs were $1.85 to $2, but this year, they were $3 or more,” Williams said. “Because of avian influenza, there has been a shortage of laying hens and eggs. About 10 percent of the nation’s laying hens were lost. None of them were in Mississippi.”

In fact, Mississippi did not have any positive tests for the highly pathogenic avian influenza, and none of the out-of-state outbreaks were in broiler houses.

Tom Tabler, poultry specialist with the MSU Extension Service, said the avian influenza scare reduced some of the nation’s export markets. “While no broilers were impacted by avian influenza, Mississippi did feel the impact on the overseas markets. The fear of avian influenza hurt broilers, especially dark meat and paw exports,” he said. “Domestic demand has struggled to keep up with increasing supply due to shrinking export markets.”

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Tabler said if avian influenza remains in check, many of these markets should begin to open back up after the first of the year. Additionally, poultry has remained competitive with beef and pork prices.

“The industry will closely monitor production levels in the coming months. As the beef and pork folks work through issues that have plagued their industries recently, the possibility of an oversupply of meat in the marketplace may be a consideration, especially if export markets are slow to return,” he said.

Tabler said an added benefit in 2015 was the price of grain. “Grain prices remained favorable throughout the year, which helped keep production costs in line,” he said. “Feed is roughly 70 percent of the cost to produce chicken. If grain prices stay favorable, feed costs stay in line with expectations.”

The 2015 avian influenza outbreak made the state’s poultry industry increase its already significant biosecurity efforts, but the potential for another outbreak in 2016, especially in Mississippi, makes it hard to predict the state of the industry in the coming months.

“No one knows what will or will not happen. We are being vigilant, using good common sense and following strict biosecurity procedures, and that’s about all we can do at this point,” Tabler said. “Some things, such as where wild geese and ducks fly, are out of our control.”

Tabler said the poultry industry is always aware of biosecurity issues, but the highly pathogenic strain has taken growers’ efforts to the next level. “Instead of having shoes, hairnets or other protective clothing designated for one farm, we are recommending a different set for each poultry house on a farm,” Tabler said. “The biggest concern has been that when the migratory birds return South from last summer’s visits to infected nesting grounds, the chance for local outbreaks would increase, especially in the first months of 2016. We are not going to drop our guard.”

Tabler said absolutely no infected birds enter the food supply. “Once commercial birds are infected, they will be euthanized and buried on the farm or composted in-house. Any transportation of infected live or dead birds could spread the infection,” he said. “Infected houses undergo a more extensive cleaning and disinfecting than for a typical cleanout.”