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They Faced Different Disruptions, But Iowa's Egg And Turkey Producers Are Recovering From Pandemic-Addled Markets

Many Iowa turkey farms faced a pandemic hiccup in production, but not until late summer.
Amy Mayer
IPR file
Many Iowa turkey farms faced a pandemic hiccup in production, but not until late summer.

Iowa produces more eggs than any other state and is the seventh-largest producer of turkeys. But the two poultry industries have had very different pandemic experiences so far.

When schools, restaurants and other large food service locations closed their kitchens in March, the demand for eggs sold in large quantities plummeted. These products include flats of many dozens of eggs sold unbroken as well as “liquid” eggs, which might be whole, whites or yolks, but are cracked at the processor. They typically go to food manufacturers.

While shoppers were stocking up on one-dozen cartons, most of Iowa’s egg production facilities didn’t have the wherewithal to suddenly switch from food service type distribution to consumer scale, says Maro Ibaburu, business analyst at the Egg Industry Center. The systems use different machines and have different labor needs.

As a result of the down market, and the inability to quickly pivot to other sectors, many egg farms culled hens from their flocks to reduce waste from over production.

“We lost many layers during this outbreak,” Ibaburu said. Overall, Iowa’s egg-laying flock is down about 28 million hens from last year. But, Ibaburu points out that downsizing was underway from the start of the year after low egg prices in 2019.

“And then the pandemic hit and we had another wave of culling birds,” he said. “My estimate is of the 28 million layers, 14 million might be explained by this COVID lack of demand for liquid eggs.”

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship used some of the state’s CARES Act money to compensate pork and egg producers for animals euthanized because of pandemic-related disruptions. The hen program set a cap of 1 million and reimbursed 25 cents per hen for disposal costs. Three farms, Rembrandt Enterprises, Fremont Farms of Iowa, and Center Fresh Farm, each received $250,000 for disposal of 1 million hens, according to information IDALS provided to IPR following an open records request. None of the three companies responded to requests for interviews.

In all, IDALS spent nearly $1.7 million to reimburse 13 farms for the culling of 6,745,076 laying hens. Eligible farms had to demonstrate they properly disposed of animals between April 1 and July 20.

Ibaburu said barn managers could also adjust the lighting to simulate shorter days, which causes hens to molt. This process pauses egg-laying and therefore gave companies a chance to reduce production.

For turkey farmers in Iowa, though, the spring shifts in demand didn’t immediately cause problems. Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, says even when fast food and quick-serve restaurants, which are the biggest consumers of Iowa-grown deli turkey, shut down, processors continued to take in market-ready birds.

“There was no turkey depopulation that happened in Iowa or anywhere that I’m aware of in the United States,” she said. But, as processors worked through the supply, the risk of excess loomed.

“Turkey is not like fine wine, it’s not better the longer it sits in storage,” Irwin said. “We need to get that product out there and consumed by the consumers. So West Liberty Foods in Iowa made a very difficult decision to pause their production for six weeks.” In anticipation of that, farmers stopped re-stocking their barns with baby turkeys.

Irwin says federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program included turkeys in its second round, which helped farmers recover the losses from those weeks of empty barns. She says farmers are now bringing in baby turkeys once again to ramp up production.

Iowa farms don’t raise turkeys marketed as whole birds, like the ones sold for Thanksgiving. Still, despite some stories about birds too big for pandemic-reduced gatherings, Irwin says families should find whatever size bird fits their needs.

“Turkey farmers are not worried about the size of the turkeys available for holiday gatherings,” she said. “There will be ample supply of a variety of sizes of turkeys for consumers.”

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames