Hatchability rates, smaller birds and export opportunities are noteworthy variables.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The poultry industry is enjoying a period of cautious optimism as processors adapt to changing demand in the US market and look to export opportunities for future growth. During a June 5 presentation at the Sosland Purchasing Seminar held June 4-6 in Kansas City, Missouri, Dave Weaber, vice president of Fort Wayne, Indiana-based EMI Analytics and Express Markets Inc., discussed some of the factors currently impacting the poultry sector and provided insight about the future.

Some of the trends he addressed included the increase in the volume of exports of fertilized hatching eggs from the US to Mexico, due largely to that country’s inability to eradicate avian influenza from its hatchery supply flocks. One trend noted by Weaber was a decline in the hatchability of broiler chicks. “We’re about 1 percent down on hatchability this year so we’re getting less chicks per 100 hens that are laying eggs,” said Weaber, adding that offsetting those numbers will likely take most of the coming year. In explaining the decline, the growing demand for antibiotic-free (ABF) poultry products seems to be the driver.

In the wake of the ABF increase, “We’ve changed the way we handle eggs and production in the hatchery and that’s impacting hatchability,” said Weaber, adding that forecasts for 2018 indicate a rebound in this category in late 2017 and 2018 as producers adjust to the new reality.

In terms of bird sizes, the trend has the attention of the industry as decision makers in the retail and foodservice sectors have begun requiring slower-grown, smaller birds. For processors and producers, this means filling the supply chain with more birds to keep up with volume. For suppliers of chicken meat to the QSR segment, for example, the days of producing 9 lb. birds that would deliver enough meat for three to four chicken breast sandwiches are dwindling as more common bird sizes are inching closer to 7.25 lbs. that only produce enough breast meat to produce two sandwiches with the remaining meat being processed as trim.

“If you’ve made that decision to go to a smaller bird and get fewer sandwiches per bird, it takes about 30 percent more birds to make the same number of sandwiches,” Weaber said. The new dynamic has a significant impact on breast meat price and breast trim prices. “We’re seeing a down trend in the last 24 to 30 months in those jumbo birds (over 7.75 lbs.),” he said, adding it is in the large-bird category that woody breast syndrome is most prevalent and an unintended result of today’s smaller birds is a decrease in that woody breast meat that currently goes straight to trim.

The transition away from the jumbo birds isn’t occurring overnight, however. At least one recently opened poultry processing plant is producing meat from big birds, Weaber pointed out. “So there are still big birds coming,” he said, as evidenced by the amount of tray-pack big bird breast meat available at many retail meat cases.

Ready-to-cook broiler production continues to be positive, Weaber pointed out, with US production topping 40 billion lbs. in 2015 and 2016, with forecasts indicating continued growth of about 1.75 percent in 2017 and up to 1.25 percent in 2018. 

With feed prices stabilizing and export demand for US poultry, especially for dark meat, poised for growth in light of avian influenza outbreaks in more than 40 countries outside the US in 2017, the outlook for the US chicken industry is seeing modest growth in light of market conditions that are slightly more stable than they were five to seven years ago.