Extension Helps North Carolina Egg Producers Meet Today’s Challenges

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Easter egg hunts, the annual kid-centric events beloved by families, communities and churches, used to be relatively inexpensive. Buy a few dozen eggs, decorate them in fun, colorful patterns, hide them in the yard, and watch children delightedly race around trying to fill their baskets with as many as possible.

This year, not so much. The cost of a dozen eggs made the traditional event almost seem like a luxury. Egg prices have dropped a little from record highs in January, but were still up 55% in February compared to a year ago. Prices are so high that Potatoes USA even suggested that folks decorate and hunt taters this year.

Potatoes are great for a lot of things — French fries, baked and served with lots of butter, cheese and sour cream, mashed with a touch of garlic. But there’s a reason that tradition favors eggs.

They are ideal for the season because they represent new life and rebirth. Eating eggs was once forbidden during Lent, the 40-day period before Easter, so they were eagerly anticipated on Easter Sunday.

The potato people were just having fun — and garnering some free publicity — with the “spuds instead of eggs” campaign. But the lighthearted campaign did underline a serious issue. 

“These have been tough times for the egg industry and the poultry industry nationwide,” NC State Extension poultry specialist Ken Anderson said.

There are major issues affecting producers that impact consumers. Nationally, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) depopulated 43-45 million laying hens in 2022, contributing to a shortage of eggs and a spike in prices.

“That is the primary reason for egg prices being what they are today, that there are 45 million fewer birds producing eggs,” Anderson said.

There have been no confirmed cases of HPAI among commercial poultry operations or backyard flocks in North Carolina this year, but the state’s poultry industry faces the issue of higher feed costs.

“If you look at grain prices, corn, soybean meal, those commodities are very high,” Anderson said. “Feed itself accounts for 70-75% of what goes into producing a dozen eggs. Three years ago we were paying $300 a ton for feed. Now we’re paying $600. Not only that, the price for a young bird has gone up, utilities have gone up. Natural gas and propane, which producers need to heat houses and provide inputs into processing, have all gone up. That’s contributed to what producers have to charge for their product just to pay the bills.”

Despite the challenges, the industry remains strong in North Carolina — No. 1 in the nation for total poultry and egg sales — thanks in large part to the work of Extension agents and specialists.

Related: All about North Carolina eggs

“We work with everybody in the industry,” Anderson said. “I work with people that have four chickens in their backyard up to people that have 4 million laying hens in a single complex. The problems aren’t that different. They’re just multiplied by a factor of a million or two. We have programs that help the industry train their personnel — how to evaluate egg quality, how to make eggs better, safer, what impact production has on quality. We develop programs and work with companies to answer questions and solve problems.”

With HPAI an ongoing threat, biosecurity education is a focus of Extension programs.

“It is extremely virulent,” Anderson said. “In the last seven years my research area has been associated with depopulation of infected or potentially infected flocks. We have protocols in place to humanely depopulate and stop the spread and help the industry if there is an outbreak in North Carolina.”

Another key Extension effort includes guiding the industry through the transition toward cage-free production, which also adds to production costs. 

“Ten years ago, about 95% of all the commercial layers were kept in cages,” Anderson said. “Today, about 40% are now cage-free. In the next few years, about 50% of the national flock will be in cage-free settings.”

Extension is helping determine which birds perform best in that environment and answering questions such as the best management strategies for raising the birds.

“For producers it means that for every bird house you lose about 25% of your capacity when you shift to cage-free,” Anderson said.

In addition to helping major producers, Extension agents and experts also work with the growing number of households and small farms with what is termed backyard flocks.

Before Covid-19, the USDA calculated there were about 16 million backyard flocks, with a conservative estimate of 215 million laying hens. The number increased by 50% during and after the pandemic.

Related: Starting a backyard flock

“Today we have somewhere around 300-320 million birds in backyard flocks,” Anderson said. “Backyard flock people want to make sure their birds are healthy, they want to make sure the eggs are safe, they want to make sure the birds are producing well. The same things that are true of the large producers, just on a smaller scale.”

In his three decades of working in the commercial egg industry, Anderson has seen the peaks and valleys. He acknowledges today’s challenges, particularly with the price of eggs compared to a year ago. Still, he points out, they provide plenty of nutritional bang for the buck.

“Even though egg prices are high, it’s still a good protein bargain,” he said. “They are cheaper than meat.”

With the ongoing support of NC State Extension, he is confident that the state’s egg producers will rise to the challenges and continue to provide a quality product for consumers.

“North Carolina numbers are going to continue to grow,” Anderson said. “As long as we keep our birds healthy and don’t have any outbreaks I think we’re going to be in good shape.”