US hatcheries scramble for chickens as consumers snap up chicks to beat egg price spike

People are snapping up heavy layers in response to egg inflation. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK - Which shortage came first: the chicks or the eggs?

Spooked by a huge spike in egg prices, some consumers in the United States are taking steps to secure their own future supply. Demand for chicks that will grow into egg-laying chickens – which jumped at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 – is rapid again as the 2023 selling season starts, leaving hatcheries scrambling to keep up.

“Everybody wants the heavy layers,” said Ms Ginger Stevenson, director of marketing at Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa. Her company has been running short on some breeds of especially prolific egg producers, partly as families try to hedge their bets against skyrocketing prices and constrained egg availability.

“When we sell out, it’s not like: Well, we can make another chicken,” she said.

Murray McMurray’s experience is not unique. Hatcheries around the country are reporting that demand is surprisingly robust in 2023. Many attribute the spike to high grocery prices, and particularly to rapid inflation for eggs, which in December cost 60 per cent more than a year earlier.

“We’re already sold out on a lot of breeds – most breeds – until the summer,” said Ms Meghan Howard, who runs sales and marketing for Meyer Hatchery in north-east Ohio. “It’s those egg prices. People are really concerned about food security.”

Google search interest in “raising chickens” has jumped markedly from a year ago. The shift is part of a broader phenomenon: A small but rapidly growing slice of the US population has become interested in growing and raising food at home, a trend that was nascent before the pandemic and has been invigorated by the shortages it spurred.

“As there are more and more shortages, it’s driving more people to want to raise their own food,” Ms Stevenson observed on a January afternoon, as 242 callers to the hatchery sat on hold, presumably waiting to stock up on their own chicks and chick-adjacent accessories.

Raising chickens for eggs takes time and upfront investment. Brown-egg-layer chicks at Murray McMurray’s cost roughly US$4 (S$5.25) apiece, and coops can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to construct.

The surge in bird-raising interest underscores how America’s first experience of rapid inflation and shortages since the 1980s is leaving marks on society that may last after cost increases have faded.

And the story of the chick and the egg – one in which supply problems have piled atop one another to create rapid inflation and inflict hardship on consumers – is a sort of allegory for what has happened in the economy as a whole since 2020.

Prices on a wide variety of products have popped in recent years as unusually strong demand for goods – spurred by pandemic lifestyle changes and savings amassed from stimulus cheques – choked global shipping routes and overwhelmed factories and other producers. Those problems have only been compounded by Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has disrupted global food and energy supplies.

Grocery inflation has been particularly acute as grain supplies contracted and costs for fuel, fertiliser and animal feed have soared. Compounding the situation, bird flu began sweeping through commercial chicken flocks in early 2022, pushing egg prices sharply higher.

Hatcheries from around the country are reporting that demand is surprisingly robust. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Highly pathogenic bird flu had been found at farms raising 58 million birds in 47 states as at January, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

“It’s just been one thing after another,” said Dr Jayson Lusk, who leads the agricultural economics department at Purdue University.

As the problems add up, some grocery stores have started rationing egg supplies, limiting customers to one or two cartons apiece. And because eggs are a major ingredient in products, including baked goods and mayonnaise, those price increases have spilled over.

Prices for eggs have started to decline: The Agriculture Department said this week that the average price of a carton of large eggs was just under US$3.40, down from more than US$5 at the start of the year.

But that is still about twice what a carton of eggs cost at this time in 2022, and it could take months for prices to return to more normal levels.

“Demand is up, but we’ve not expanded for the last three years because we don’t have the workforce,” said Mr Jeff Smith, one of the owners of Cackle Hatchery in Missouri. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Commercial farms need time to rebuild their depleted stocks of egg-laying hens, and changes in wholesale prices tend to happen faster than grocery store costs. Another potential headwind: Easter is approaching, which is likely to cause demand to pick up.

In the meantime, the egg-spurred rush for raise-at-home chickens demonstrates how one shortage can snowball into another: While hatcheries can theoretically hatch more chicks to meet the surge in demand, that is proving to be difficult in today’s economy.

“Demand is up, but we’ve not expanded for the last three years because we don’t have the workforce,” said Mr Jeff Smith, one of the owners of Cackle Hatchery in Missouri.

Mr Jonathan Haines, a senior analyst at Gro Intelligence, which tracks global crops, said there were “glimmers of hope in the year ahead” for global food prices as supplies improved for eggs, vegetable oils, meat and other commodities.

But heavy rainfall in California slowed production of things like leafy vegetables and broccoli and could add price pressures in the months ahead.

“Things are starting to ease,” Mr Haines said of food prices. “But they’re still high relative to history.”

Whether today’s situation leads to lasting changes in how people procure their eggs remains to be seen. The Chicago Roo Crew, which rehouses unwanted hens and roosters, fears that today’s spike in chick purchases could leave people dumping adult birds later.

“We’re incredibly worried about this right now,” said Ms Julia Magnus, a co-founder of the group. There was a spike in “dumped birds” after early pandemic buying and the group is “still dealing with the aftermath”. NYTIMES

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