Poultry production in the Corn Belt is still a relatively minor industry compared to beef and pork, but it is at least holding its own, and may even be on the move.
“I think it’s increasing,” said John Bryan of the Poultry Federation. “When I’m talking to the Tyson fellows or Cargill, they’re expanding and people want to be growers.”
The federation represents growers and processors in Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.
While layers and broilers are only a small part of the industry in the Midwest, turkey production is big business. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Services, Missouri is fourth in turkey production, with 640 million pounds in 2018. Iowa is sixth with 477 million pounds. Indiana is third with 768 million pounds.
The other “I State” has a much smaller footprint.
“We do have a turkey industry,” said Ken Koelkebeck, a University of Illinois Extension educator who heads up the Illinois Poultry Industry. “We raise about 5 million birds. That sounds like a lot, but compared to the rest of the industry it’s not. And broilers are basically a non-existent industry compared to Arkansas.”
Missouri ranks 12th in broiler production with about 290 million animals earning more than $800 million annually. Iowa and Illinois are not in the top 20.
Nationally, poultry is big business. The industry contributes nearly $600 billion annually to the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. That represents nearly 3% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Two major turkey processing plants operate in Missouri — in Carthage and the Moniteau County community of California. Bryan isn’t aware of any new processing plants coming online.
“They’re swamped right now getting ready for Thanksgiving,” he said.
Lack of processing is a major impediment in expanding the poultry industry in Illinois. ADM, through its MoorMan brand, launched a major turkey processing venture in Quincy about 20 years ago, but it lasted only a couple of years, according to Koelkebeck.
“The stumbling block in the turkey and broiler industry is that it is very expensive to build a processing plant,” he said. “The cost of a plant may be $30 million to $50 million, or whatever. That company ended up losing about a million dollars a day.
“That’s the problem in the meat-bird industry. It’s more cost-effective to ship the grain to Arkansas and have that company ship back product to Chicago and St. Louis.”
Bryan pointed to the employment problem exacerbated by the pandemic. Like other meat processors, poultry plants are challenged when seeking workers.
“Right now it’s hard to get people to work,” he said. “I talked to the Cargill folks the other day at California, Missouri. He’s 99% full. They’re all saying that $300 extra the government has been giving away kept everyone on the porch.”
The retro-ag trend has brought poultry production to the forefront in many areas as more niche farmers are getting into business.
Koelkebeck said that in Illinois there is a concentration of independent growers in the Peoria-Morton area, along with a couple of USDA-inspected processing plants. About 40 farmers grow turkeys on contract for Perdue.
The biggest contribution by the “I States” to the poultry industry may come from grain farmers.
“All the corn and soybeans we raise in the state is very important to the poultry industry because that’s where they get their feed,” Koelkebeck said. “That’s 60% to 79% of the cost of production.”