COVID-19 is changing the poultry industry more than any similar event in living memory. The only silver lining, perhaps, is that other industries, including meat, milk and vegetables, have probably suffered more. 

The poultry industry’s focus since the advent of vertical integration in the 1940s has been to strengthen the supply chain, capture upstream and downstream profits, reduce production costs and access new distribution channels for new products. 

The result is an industry that is efficient, low cost, and with a just in time supply chain. However, this model has equally made it ill-prepared for the biblical-level events of the past five months.

The novel coronavirus crisis has seen agricultural producers dispose of millions of gallons of milk, crack eggs for disposal and plow vegetables into the ground.  In addition, multiple meat plants have been brought to a halt - from Nebraska to West Virginia – casualties of the need to maintain social distancing.

Following COVIV-19 nothing will ever be the same again, yet agriculture was already experiencing profound change. Now, these changes have become more important than ever to build an “anti-fragile” supply chain for the future.

Consumer changes driving producer changes

More than half of U.S. consumers’ food spending pre-COVID was outside the home. COVID has changed this, with full-service restaurants reporting business down by 70%, and most closed completely. This has meant huge challenges for liquid egg production, for example, and further processed foods for foodservice. 

Foodservice business Sysco’s pivot to sell “restaurant quality groceries” is an example of the monumental changes we have seen, while food producers are scrambling to invest in processing and packing on farm, allowing them to ship direct to consumers.

Technologies that make this possible include smart packaging, for example coating with natural protective polymers, such as those being used on fruit, longer shelf-life foods, such as dried meats or the ultra heat treated milk, and value-added foods such as cheeses and specialized pates/meatloafs.

Direct relationships between farms and consumers are made possible by the internet and social media, but direct delivery will be made easier by the development of autonomous vehicles and drones.

New communication

During the current shutdown, poultry producers have been surprised by the ease of use of technologies such as Zoom, WebX, and Skype, and have embraced them as an alternatives to sales visits and technical advisors.

Virtual video conferences have also supplanted board meetings, trade shows and technical symposia. While, to a greater degree than in many other industries, face-to-face selling still carries weight in the poultry industry, virtual meetings have been a huge hit and are an inevitable part of the poultry business’s future.

Online trading platforms now allow producers to purchase grains, seeds, fertilizers, equipment, spare parts and feeds, however, they still have a relatively low adoption rate at farm level. The current crisis has made this more obvious and some platforms are offering COVID-19 promotions to get more producers into their pool, seeing the crisis as a chance to grow their business. 

New technology

Blockchain-based systems are being backed by leading food companies, such as Walmart, Cargill and, most recently, by Dole in a major way, and are a part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food safety and traceability strategy, under which confidence building is deemed essential.

3-D printing is a godsend to farmers who may be facing lengthy delays in finding parts to fix feed delivery systems, tractors, combines or other equipment. The ability to print spare parts and get back to business on the farm without the need for a physical visit or delivery is appreciated by growers.

Could food be printed in consumer’s kitchens? This technology is already for sale with food printers available from US$2,000 and probably heralds the need to consider new markets for poultry-derived proteins and ingredients in powder or liquid form to accommodate this market.

Virtual reality and augmented reality have already featured in some universities as a way to teach students more about agriculture, with equine and ruminant veterinarians being taught without invasive procedures.  Virtual poultry sessions carried out off the farm reduce the need for visitors. In a world where ongoing social distancing is a distinct possibility these techniques become more attractive.

Robotics

During the COVID crisis, the risk of workers getting sick and the application of strict distancing rules have made the challenge of finding and retaining qualified labor all the more difficult.

In some areas, robots are already replacing manual work on farm, for example milking cows, harvesting fruit, or weeding fields, but their acceptance on poultry farms has been relatively limited. The planting and harvesting of crops can be done by autonomous vehicles and, with the advent of soft robots, so many more traditional tasks could be reengineered.

Processing plants are the most obvious example of where robotics can make significant changes, taking on dangerous tasks or those where employees work in proximity to one another. Catching birds for harvest, or collecting eggs are examples of where soft robotics could play an important role.

Other examples include using smart cameras to observe animals, with machine learning and artificial intelligence interpreting the information to give growers insights delivered to their smart devices.

The ability to engage in remote monitoring is critical for producers, not only for their own information but also to reduce the need for service providers, such as veterinarians, to physically visit the farm. 

The internet of things, IoT, connects all the various points in the data chain and removes the need for basic labor on the poultry farm, allowing those who remain to be more focused on their jobs.

Artificial intelligence (AI), of course, is the game changer for the food industry, helping to make better choices, enhancing the role of farm technicians, veterinarians, nutritionists and extension agents. AI is critical to address productivity, animal welfare and environment.

It is a truism that COVID-19 will not leave the world unchanged, and with it we will embrace fundamental and different ways of working to maximize efficiencies in food processing, that are resilient and prepared for unexpected events. 

In the case of poultry, the tsunami of technological change was occurring already, but this crisis has accelerated that change, as we strive to re-shape an industry to be both efficient and anti-fragile.

View our continuing coverage of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.