A late-winter storm that chilled laying hens in three states has helped to push egg prices to five-year highs nationwide just before the Easter rush, industry officials said Tuesday.
A snow and ice storm that socked Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri on March 5 and 6 destroyed hundreds of chicken houses and knocked out power lines, leaving many hens out in the cold, said Harold Ford, executive vice president of the Southeastern Poultry & Egg Assn. in Decatur, Ga.
“They got chilled,” Ford said. “In cold weather, hens just do not lay as many eggs as they do in normal spring weather. They just don’t eat, and they don’t lay.”
Ken Klippen, vice president of United Egg Producers in Atlanta, estimated the losses in the three states at 1.5 million to 2 million laying hens, worth about $55 million. The losses represented almost 1% of the nation’s layers, he said.
For every 1% change in egg supply, there generally is a corresponding 5% change in price, Klippen said.
Wholesale prices in New York, considered an industry benchmark, rose to 98 cents a dozen for Grade A large white eggs, from 90 to 92 cents before the storm, said Jack Ross, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington. Prices in mid-February averaged about 66 cents a dozen, he said.
The three states have about 7.5% of the 230 million egg-producing chickens in the United States, Klippen said. Arkansas egg farms, with 9 million layers, suffered the greatest losses in the storm.
The damage came at a time egg prices were already rising because of heavy holiday demand, he said.
“Those people who lost chickens . . . lost them at the peak season. This was the only positive point in profitability that we’ve had in months,” Klippen said. “For some of them, it was most devastating.”
Egg prices already had been inflated somewhat, in response to industry contraction because of decreasing consumption of eggs and rising production costs, officials said.
“We had fewer hens on the farms anyway, and then this weather problem hit,” Ford said. “It really knocked the supply down considerably.”
Ross said there is now good balance between production and demand, rather than a shortage of eggs. Prices will drop again after Easter, he said.
The last time egg prices reached current levels was in 1984, when an influenza outbreak decimated Pennsylvania flocks and pushed wholesale prices above the $1-a-dozen mark, Ross said.
Officials said the losses because of weather probably will also force up chicken prices across the country. Broiler producers were hit much harder than egg farms, but the former can recover much more quickly, Klippen said.
A hen must be at least 21 weeks old before it can begin laying eggs, and an egg takes three weeks to hatch, he said.