(AP) – Turkey production is at its lowest level in nearly three decades and wholesale prices are at an all-time high, but Thanksgiving cooks probably won’t see much difference in the price they pay at the stores for their frozen birds.
This year’s anticipated stock is 235 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service — the lowest since 1986, when U.S. farmers produced roughly 207 million birds.
While the estimated 2014 number doesn’t indicate a shortage of turkeys, which can remain in cold storage for a year or longer, it does reflect a pullback in recent years by poultry producers who were forced to reduce their flocks to remain afloat.
“Last year was a bloodbath. It was bad,” said John Zimmerman, a farmer in Northfield, Minn., who produces about 300,000 turkeys a year. He said scaled back his numbers in recent years because higher feed and transportation prices, among other things, cut into his bottom line. Even the price of soybean meal — which accounts for about 30% of turkey feed — is at a historical high, he said.
All areas of livestock production — poultry included — were drastically cut after the widespread 2012 drought in an attempt to stifle losses, says Corinne Alexander, a Purdue University agricultural economist. Plus, many farmers are using feed that they bought in the wake of the drought, which cost more than the current market price.
“What’s happening in the turkey sector is a mini-story of what is happening in other sectors, where the impact has been really dramatic,” Alexander said. “If you look at beef cattle, we have the smallest beef cattle herd since 1951, and prices for beef are up 17 percent this year.”
October wholesale prices for live turkeys jumped 12 percent from 2013, from 72 cents per pound to 81 cents, NASS commodities statistician Michael Klamm said. And frozen turkey wholesale prices were expected to be between $1.12 and $1.16 per pound in the fourth quarter — up from $1.05 per pound at this time last year, the USDA said.
But consumers won’t necessarily see that reflected in the price of their Thanksgiving meal centerpiece.
“There’s really no correlation between what grocery store chains are paying and what they’re selling them at,” USDA agriculture economist David Harvey said.
Turkey numbers peaked in 1996, with nearly 303 million birds.
Alexander doesn’t expect the paltry poultry numbers to stick around, because, compared with other livestock, it doesn’t take as long to rebuild the flock — about three to five months to raise a turkey to market size. Plus, this year’s record corn harvest will help the process, she said, as current projections indicate corn prices are about half of what they were in September 2012.
Zimmerman doubts corn prices will fall much more because of demand for ethanol and exports, and because farmers are rebuilding cattle and swine herds, too, cutting further into the nation’s abundant corn supply.
“It takes a while to recover, once you have a shock to the system, because premium stock gets liquidated and it takes time to raise it back up,” he said of the nation’s turkey supply. “There’s not going to be a quick change of price, but there should be a moderate change in the next six months.”
MANHATTAN – Kansans aren’t talkin’ turkey like they used to.
The Sunflower State ranks around 20th in the number of turkeys raised compared to other states. At one time, it came in second.
That doesn’t seem too bad until you realize that 20th is still far less than 1 percent of all the 235 million turkeys grown in the United States each year, 15 million of which will be consumed today. The leading states are Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas, according to data from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Still, “Kansas remains a potential state for significant turkey production,” said Kansas State University animal scientist, Scott Beyer. “There are a small number of growers in Kansas that produce heritage breed turkeys and some are marketed nationally. With good roads, a strong agricultural base, and feed resources, the turkey industry could one day look to Kansas to grow birds again.”
Because the industry has become ensconced in other states, Beyer said, it would take a sustained and concerted effort by local farm groups, cites, counties and the state to show that Kansas should be considered when new growth occurs in the turkey industry.
“Perhaps rural areas in need of new jobs and business would see turkey production as a way to diversity farming and brings new jobs to Kansas,” he said.
This is already happening, just ask Jeff Hamons. He and his wife Laura manage Synergistic Acres in Parker, about 45 minutes from Kansas City. Their two daughters Elise and Alaina also are an integral part of the farm.
“It has changed a lot,” Hamons said of turkey farming. The Hamons are part of the growing “heritage” movement in agriculture, where the genetics of the animals they raise can be traced back 100 years.
“This is the way they used to be raised,” he said. However, in the 1950s grain prices fell and the demand for turkeys grew, leading to indoor mass production.
Now, there is a renewed interest in livestock grown outside without the additives or chemicals. Hamon and other heritage devotees believe their products have more flavor and taste better.
The location of these farms is determined by the market, Hamon said. Most are concentrated in eastern Kansas near the larger urban areas where the demand is greater.
“Thanksgiving is based on tradition and based on food,” Hamon said. Although heritage turkeys account for only about 1 percent of the birds to be consumed today, the are growing in popularity.
“We sell out every year,” he said. “We have more demand than we have supply.”
They grow about 100 heritage turkeys each year out on pasture. They’re free range, and have portable pastures that are moved weekly along with roosts so they always have fresh grass to eat.
The Hamons charge $7.20 per pound for turkeys. They range in size from eight to 20 pounds.
At one time, Kansas was considered by many in the poultry industry to be second in total poultry production, Beyer said, In the 1930s about 10 percent of all Kansas farms raised turkeys. In the 1940s, live and dressed turkey competitions were held in Wichita.
Many of the birds were hatched in the state and grown in fields with protection by pole barns, said Beyer, who is a poultry specialist with K-State Research and Extension. If Kansans wanted a turkey grown in the state, in the early 1960s that was about the best time to find one.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, big changes came to the state and national turkey industries. Turkey growers became larger and fewer, Beyer said. Many people saw similar changes in livestock production so to protect small farms, legislation was passed to slow the change to marketing alliances where turkey growers produced birds under contract.
As the turkey industry grew enormously in other states, he said, Kansas turkey growers lost the competitive edge they had as the industry modernized into integrated production models.
“Ironically, the model for integrated turkey production used today has saved many family farms by growing turkeys on contract – but in other states, not Kansas,” Beyer said. “Farms, feed mills, hatcheries, and processing plants once in Kansas were all closed and built in other states. And the jobs and farm diversification went with them.”
Today, Beyer said most of the turkeys produced in Kansas are raised in the southeast part of the state, with a few being raised the central portion.
Other factors like market proximity and transportation over sparse farm roads were no doubt contributing factors, but the very regulations meant to save the farm actually closed many of the turkey farms in Kansas.
By the early 1980s, virtually no turkeys were grown in Kansas, Beyer added. Even the Central Kansas Hatchery, which at one time hatched 2 million to 3 million day-old-poults a year, shipped their turkeys to neighboring states. But the cost of moving all of those turkeys to other states for feeding and processing became too much and that hatchery closed as well.
In the late 1980s, a few commercial turkey farms, built to grow turkeys under contract with a large integrated turkey producer, opened in Cherokee County in southeast Kansas. Other large farms soon followed in the same area and a feed mill was constructed. The turkeys grown in that area today are processed across the state line in Missouri.