Prepare to Pay More for Poultry: Chicken Farms Crushed by Snow

Snowstorms that hit the Eastern Seaboard this week could mean shortages and high prices at the grocery store -- not just for milk and bread, but for chicken. At least a dozen poultry houses at chicken farms on Maryland's Eastern Shore and in Delaware, as well as one in Shenandoah, Va., suffered collapsed roofs due to heavy snow over the weekend, causing damage in the millions of dollars. And that was before the week's second storm, which dumped around another foot or more on the region. Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee predicted far more damage to come this week.Maryland and Delaware are the eighth- and ninth-largest U.S. producers of broiler chickens (the chickens typically used for meat -- everything from nuggets to rotisserie), together raising and selling more than 540 million of the country's 9.01 billion broilers each year. University of Delaware extension specialist Bill Brown told the Associated Press that delays in deliveries of feed and propane to heat chicken houses could also cause a huge number of birds to die of exposure, reducing poultry availability still further and impacting prices in the region.

Chicken farming today is quite different than it was even as recently as the 1960s, and poultry flocks are far more susceptible to unusual weather conditions. Fewer than eight billion pounds of poultry were produced in 1968; that rose to more than 50 billion pounds by 2008. As the number of birds skyrocketed, so did the average size of each bird, while at the same time, the number of weeks chickens lived grew smaller and smaller. It took 16 weeks for a chicken to grow to the average market weight of 2.7 pounds in the 1930s; in the 1990s, specially bred chickens reached an average market weight of 4.7 pounds in fewer than seven weeks.

The price of faster growth and shorter lifespans is far less hardiness; chickens which in the 1950s and 1960s would have been fully-feathered (and thus hardy enough to withstand cold weather) for more than half of their lives now barely reach that age (four to six weeks) before the are slaughtered. In addition, the extremely high density of chicken farming means they're packed in flat-roofed structures that need not meet the same structural-integrity standards as human housing.

After 10 to 12 more inches of snow fell on the region Wednesday, the chicken farmers of Delaware and Maryland may already be suffering from record losses to match the record precipitation. A few areas in Delaware are still without power. And another snowstorm ("possibly less intense") is forecast to arrive early next week. Conditions for the two states' biggest sources of farm income bode ill for the price of poultry in the coming months.

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