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Poultry Prices Rise in Wake of Storms in Nation’s Midsection

Times Staff Writer

Consumers may pay at least 5 cents a pound more for poultry over the next two months because winter storms earlier this week left millions of birds dead and hundreds of chicken barns destroyed in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Wholesale prices for chickens went up 5 cents a pound Wednesday and should be reflected in supermarket prices in two to four weeks.

“The price increases will be felt nationwide,” said Bill Roenigk, economist for the National Broiler Council in Washington. “There is generally always an overreaction to weather in the market. The question is where do we go from here.”

The storms last Sunday and Monday dumped ice and then wet, heavy snow on a broad area of the nation’s midsection from Oklahoma to central Illinois. The weight of the ice and snow collapsed the roofs of more than 600 of the country’s 40,000 broiler houses and left between 5 million and 6 million birds dead.

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Broilers are the whole and cut-up chickens consumers buy at supermarket counters and as fast food in carryout restaurants. Several of the collapsed barns also housed hens that lay breeding eggs used to raise broilers.

“What we’re facing is not only a disruption in the actual number of birds going to market,” Roenigk said, “but because breeder hens have been lost, we’re also going to be losing some hatching eggs, and they have been in tight supply even before this.”

Will Cost Millions

The storms are expected to bring the average retail price of chickens up to about 85 cents a pound.

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“We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars, whether that is $30 million or twice that number remains to be seen,” said Roenigk.

Arkansas, the nation’s No. 1 poultry producing state, bore the brunt of the storms with losses that may exceed $35 million in buildings and birds, said Susan Whitacre, spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Clinton. At least 280 poultry barns were collapsed in four counties where the state is now seeking federal disaster aid.

“It’s pretty devastating,” said Robert Moorman, a Sulphur Springs, Ark., farmer who grows chickens for Tyson Foods Inc., a major poultry packager. “It looks like a disaster. There are chickens just everywhere. We’re trying to catch them and put them in other houses.

“My chickens are 6 weeks old and would go to market in two weeks, but they (Tyson) can’t get here to pick them up because of the road conditions. The chickens have had no feed or water since Sunday. I don’t know how many are going to live. There are maybe 10,000 to 12,000 chickens (on the farm). I’ve lost probably 3,000 to 4,000, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to my friends.”

In Oklahoma, state officials are seeking disaster declarations in at least 16 counties.

Surplus Reported

California, the nation’s leading egg producer, was unaffected by the storms. If anything, the state’s poultry producers, led by Foster Farms, Zacky Farms and Louis Rich, will benefit from the temporarily higher prices caused by the storm-shortened supplies of broilers, observed a spokesman for the agricultural marketing service in Los Angeles.

Roenigk said the storms will not affect the price of table eggs--in particular demand before Easter--because there was a surplus of them before the bad weather hit.

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Researcher Rhona Schwartz in Houston and staff writer Bruce Keppel in Los Angeles contributed to this article.


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