Broiler weights: What they mean to the processing operation and product mix

Broilerweights continue their upward march at U.S. poultry processing complexes. Howis this trend impacting broiler processing operations and product mix?

Breast from six-pound broiler could yield 60 percent filet, 30 percent nuggets and 10 percent trim.
Breast from six-pound broiler could yield 60 percent filet, 30 percent nuggets and 10 percent trim.

When people in the poultry industry hear the term "big-bird production" they think of the steady upward march in broiler live weights seen for many years now. Broiler company managers must perform continuous analysis in order to understand how this trend impacts their poultry operations.

Why big birds? The answer to this question is relatively simple when you look at the historical cost of live production in the poultry business. When corn prices reached their high at $8.18 per bushel in November of 2012, big-bird broiler production seems to have made sense. Grow and process fewer, larger birds while maintaining the net pounds processed. Win-win, right?

How big is big enough? According to Express Markets Analytics, only 23 percent of birds grown were heavier than six pounds in 2000. By 2012, 75 percent were over six pounds (35 percent 6-7.5 pounds and 30 percent more than 7.5 pounds). A recent report from Agri Stats shows the large-bird segment averaging 8.22 pounds per bird. Where will it stop?

Impact on people in processing operations

All of this makes sense on the live side of the business, but what are the effects of these changes to processing operations? These increased sizes have a huge ripple effect downstream as the birds are transformed into products your customers want to buy. There seems to be a convergence of opposing trends in the industry. On the one hand, the retail consumer is leaning toward more individual single-serving packages (i.e., multiple, individual vacuum-packed portions) and foodservice customers are trying to downsize portions for economic and nutritional reasons while on the other hand the industry is producing a larger product. Let's look at some of the effects of the trend to larger birds on plant operations.

There is the effect on the people who have to handle these birds. Is a live hanger who was expected to hang more than twenty six-pound birds a minute now expected to hang at the same rate? More than likely the supervisor of the area has already figured out how to address this issue in a way that ensures proper employee safety and still keeps the shackles full. But, was the solution part of the plan or was it simply left to the supervisor to react to the change? Has anyone from your safety/ergonomics team reviewed the process to confirm the supervisor's solution Where else in your operations might the larger bird have an effect on employee safety or ergonomics? What about your rehangers in second-processing - how are they affected?

Impact on equipment in processing operations

Then there is the effect these larger birds have on the equipment in your processing facilities. With first-processing running the same line speed with eight-pound birds as it did with six-pound birds, the additional weight not only changes the dwell time of the chiller, but also puts much more physical stress on the chiller. The additional weight in drag chillers can cause pins to break if the volume between gates is not closely monitored.

Additionally, there are now more pounds at any given time on all the shackle lines. Are the motors that run your drip lines properly sized for the additional weight?

Where else does this additional weight effect your equipment? Has the additional weight caused your costs for maintenance, repair and operations to increase?

Impact on product mix in processing operations

When your second-processing department has value-added operations, this larger bird again can wreak havoc, particularly with your product mix. Formerly, breast meat coming from a six-pound bird had a rule of thumb that 60 percent of the breast was cut into a filet, 30 percent into nuggets and 10 percent into trim. Simple, right? Now, with breast meat from an 8-pound-plus bird having to be converted into similar products, the filet may be 30 percent and the nuggets 60 percent.

This can vastly change the sales mix of a facility, and your sales department had better be prepared. Sometimes it takes some creativity. Would it make sense to size breasts ahead of a water jet cutter, pulling out the largest breasts to be slit and then cut into filets and nuggets? It is usually left to production operations to figure out how to best decrease the cut loss and increase the yield while at the same time meeting the customer specifications and volume.

Impact on yield, cost and pricing

The net effect from the value-added side of the business is more cost associated with the processing of these products. These additional costs show up in two ways. The cost of the additional machinery and/or labor to size, trim, or portion this product is easy to calculate and even easier to control because you can physically see it. But what about the elusive cost of yield? Every time meat is moved or stored, is slit horizontally, is trimmed, or is cut by a water-jet machine, yield is lost.

For example, if a product that was run through a water-jet cutting machine was costed for a breast from a five- to six-pound bird it might result in a breast portion and four to six nuggets. Now, it is receiving breast meat from an eight-pound bird, and it will result in additional secondary products (nuggets or strips), as well as more trim than originally projected. Was this additional lost yield accounted for when pricing these products? Was there a plan for the additional secondary product pounds?

Utilizing trim meat profitably

And, of course, the next issue is what to do with the additional trim. Off to the freezer, or on to further processing? This, too, is becoming a stickier issue, not just for the fully integrated poultry processor, but for those processors whose supply comes from the fully integrated processors. In some instances these second-tier, value added processors have few options to utilize this product in-house, and they have to sell the additional trim on the open market, further eroding margins. Even the fully integrated processors have the additional R&D expense to find, or in some instances create, a product in which this additional trim can be consumed. Of course, all these additional costs when properly planned for and managed can be offset as the white meat yield pushes toward 28 percent. 

Holistic approach needed in decisions about bird weights

Here's an even larger point of this discussion. When large-scale changes like the decision to increase the size of the bird are made, do you as a company take the entire picture into account? While these kinds of decisions are certainly not made in a vacuum, what is discussed around a conference table and Excel spreadsheets is often not as easy to consistently pull off on the plant floor.

Having been eye witness to some rather large-scale management mistakes, it is important that someone is taking the entire operating system into account. In one instance, many years ago, a company raised its bird weights from four to six pounds without taking into account the effects on the equipment downstream. When the company's sister plant received its first load of larger birds, managers quickly realized the larger birds were not compatible with their existing automatic deboning machines. The ensuing weeks of turmoil this caused could have been prevented with proper planning.

The poultry industry is facing more and more large-scale change. The eventual implementation of the Food Safety and Modernization Act will dramatically change the landscape of processors. These changes will initially be most visible in the first-processing environment, but the effects will be felt throughout the entire poultry operation and supply chain. Are you ready?

How are broiler weights impacting your processing operation and product mix? Profitably managing broiler weights in the poultry operation requires continuous monitoring, planning and attention to operational execution.

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