VIDEO: HPAI's impact on 2022 turkey production and prices

More than 7.4 million turkeys were lost, so far, to avian influenza in 2022 with broad effects on the market for the entire year and pivotal holiday season.

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Elam Thomas

More than 7.4 million turkeys were lost, so far, to avian influenza in 2022 with broad effects on the market for the entire year and pivotal holiday season. 

In a WATT Poultry Chat interview, Dr. Thomas Elam, president of FarmEcon LLC, reviewed losses from highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and its effects on the whole bird and parts markets.

Austin Alonzo: Well, we've recently discussed highly pathogenic avian influenza and its impacts on the holiday market on this show. Today, let's focus on HPAI's impacts on 2022 production levels and prices.

Thomas Elam: I'd like to start with a slide that shows the number of turkeys lost by date for this year to HPAI. 

The big difference between now and 2015 is that these losses have not stopped all year. The last point on that slide is over a million turkeys that have been lost. But the confinement area around those losses has not been terminated yet. 

In total, over 7.4 million turkeys have died pre-maturely because of this avian influenza continuing plague, and that has had a major effect on prices, particularly for whole birds and white meat. 

The white meat market bellwether is the tom turkey, boneless skinless breast. And that started out the year at about $4, a little under $4. It's currently almost $7, not quite double, but getting close to it. 

The dark meat parts in this chart show basically fairly stable prices. But they are mainly export items, not mainly but a large volume of our popular dark meat production goes overseas and our exports have been weak because of HPAI. We don't export much white meat. And so the difference in the demand structure for these two is responsible for this different trend we see in prices of white meat versus dark meat. And on whole birds, the hen price this year is up to record levels frozen hens up about 30% or so started out at a little over $1 a pound and currently trading at 1.8. 

And the main reason for that is the fact that a lot of these hens are priced early in the year on contracts. And this market, the cash market, reflects probably people trying to buy turkeys on the open market to fulfill contracts that they haven't been able to fulfill because of HPAI losses of hens and that has driven the stock price up. 

It will be interesting to see what happens with specialing this year, as we get in about the next three weeks we'll be getting into the hot specialing of grocery stores. Retail, all retail outlets selling turkeys will offer them at substantial discounts to get people into the store to buy the other items they're going to buy for Thanksgiving. And I expect those offers will be a little bit less generous this year because of these higher prices. 

In response to this, it is really interesting that U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest forecast, just issued a few days ago, is calling for an 8% increase in turkey production in 2023. In my memory, that's the biggest percentage increase we've ever seen. And it would lead to a full one pound per person increase in turkey meat production. 

But in order to accomplish that, with the current breeding flock, we're going to need to basically eradicate HPAI this winter and not have any more losses next year, which would in fact lead to a substantial rebound in production. 

But, we'll see. The persistence of this HPAI infection across the country has been really alarming. It is a very hard strain to get rid of. But I think we thought we'd do better than that. In the last few outbreaks. One, two in California, one in Pennsylvania. So it shows that it's still spread across the country. In fact, California was barely touched by the 2015 outbreak has been heavily hit this time around. And we haven't seen much in the Midwest in the last few weeks. And so that outbreak in Minnesota but I don't take any comfort in that at all. We should see the infection slow down a little bit over the winter and then we'll see what happens come spring when the birds start flying back north.

This transcript edited for length and clarity. 

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