Will Turkey Take This Thanksgiving Off?

No doubt you have seen the signs in the grocery stores. Eggs are as much as five dollars a dozen in some spots and turkey lunch meats are in short supply at the deli counter. As we reported last spring the poultry industry has been combating a devastating bird flu epidemic that has so far cost that industry nearly $1 billion in production. While forecasts for holiday turkey remain optimistic there are some nervous farmers out there hoping the flu does not return.

While turkey right now is at premium prices beyond five dollars a pound in some markets analysts expect prices to be only slightly higher than a year ago if all goes well in the next few weeks. Wholesale frozen hen turkeys, typically purchased for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, are expected to cost $1.25 to $1.35 a pound, up 16 percent from $1.14 at the same time last year, according to U.S.D.A. livestock, dairy, and poultry analyst Shale Shagam.

Nationally, turkey supplies will remain tight and prices will remain higher into the first part of 2016, according to Shagam. “Areas like Minnesota have been cleared (of the flu). They are beginning to restock. Production will build slowly. We expect prices to moderate. Most of the impact of the price decline will come in the latter part of 2016,” Shagam said.

But that is only if a return to the bird flu can be avoided this fall. Migratory patterns of ducks and geese could tell the tale. They are not affected by the flu but are carriers and they could once again wipe out this first generation of chickens and turkeys whose predecessors were destroyed by the millions last spring.

The flu arrived in early March in the Upper Midwest as waterfowl migrated north. With this fall’s southward migration, the poultry industry and animal health regulators are preparing for the virus’ possible return.

“I have a whole page of ‘lessons learned’ from the spring,” said Dr. William Hartmann, head of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. One of the biggest: “We need to have adequate equipment and trained people to depopulate a flock that is found positive [for flu] within 24 hours.”

Farmers in the industry have spent millions in flu prevention procedures and upgrades. Most remain optimistic that things will be okay. But as the calendar turns to September many keep a wary eye on the weather and the migration of ducks and geese that are sure to carry the flu again. They just don’t know if it can happen this bad again.

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