Bird flu lays out egg production in California

California egg production is down more than half from last year after avian flu outbreak wipes out entire flocks of chickens

Bird flu outbreaks in California have significantly reduced egg production, leading to supply shortages and increased prices statewide. (ltyuan on AdobeStock)
Bird flu outbreaks in California have significantly reduced egg production, leading to supply shortages and increased prices statewide. (ltyuan on AdobeStock)
John Lindt
Published April 30, 2024  • 
10:30 am

CALIFORNIA – California is counting its chickens, and the losses are shell shocking. 

USDA reports in February said California’s egg production during January totaled 185 million, down 43 million from December’s production and down 100 million from January 2023.

The big drop is in the number of egg layers in January 2024 that totaled 7.78 million, down 18% from last month and down 37% from January 2023.

Eggs per 100 layers were steady during the month at 2,377, compared to 2,389 a month earlier, and 2,310 in January 2023.

As of 1998 the state’s hen flock was around 25,000. By 2012, there were some 19,000 laying chickens in California. That number dropped to 13,500 in 2022 and now is about half that.

The big drop seen in February numbers is likely impacted by the contagious bird flu virus that wiped out whole flocks of egg laying chickens in the state.

One report said, “The highly contagious virus has ravaged Sonoma County, where officials have declared a state of emergency. During the past two months, nearly a dozen commercial farms have had to destroy more than 1 million birds to control the outbreak, dealing an economic blow to farmers, workers and their customers.”

Online financial information hub NerdWallet reports there’s an egg shortage nationwide because the ongoing bird flu outbreak reduced the number of egg-laying chickens.

“As of April 17, the virus has affected more than 90.6 million birds in the U.S. since January 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the birds affected were egg-laying hens,” NerdWallet reported.

New bird flu cases continue to be reported by major U.S. egg producers. Most recently, Cal-Maine Foods Inc., the largest U.S. egg producer, announced on April 2 that it had found cases of bird flu in chickens at a plant in Texas. More than 1.6 million egg-laying hens and 337,000 juvenile chickens were affected at the Texas plant — or about 3.6% of the company’s total flocks, Cal-Maine said in a news release.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development reportedly found cases of bird flu at Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, another major U.S. egg producer based in Ionia County, Michigan. The department didn’t specify how many affected birds were egg-laying hens, according to the Associated Press.
A total of 5.97 million birds were lost between the two facilities, according to the USDA’s Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook report released April 17.

Eggs-tenuating Costs

The Report continues “a dozen large white cage-free eggs cost about $3.02 per dozen in California,” according to USDA market data released April 19. 

Egg prices have been high in California because a string of bird flu cases in December and January were concentrated in the state. It’s possible retailers could’ve made up the losses with eggs from outside the state, but California law limits their alternatives.

In 2018, California voters passed a ballot measure setting high standards for farm animal welfare. The law requires only cage-free eggs be sold in the state. The share of egg layers raised in cage-free conditions has been growing, but they still make up less than half of the national population. And many of them are raised in California. USDA data show the national inventory of cage-free eggs took a big hit when California egg producers reported cases of bird flu.

Because of the diminished supply of cage-free eggs, prices went up. Weekly price data from the USDA shows California egg prices (meaning, cage-free egg prices) peaked at $5.59 per dozen during the week of Feb. 9. Since then, the supply of cage-free eggs has largely recovered, according to the USDA. That has eased egg prices in California.

Egg consumption nationwide is estimated at 277 eggs per person, but in California the average is 339 eggs per person. California is the number one egg consuming state in the U.S. 

Despite challenges, production of eggs nationwide has generally been on an upward swing. But in California egg production was 317 million in December 2022, 277 million in February 2023 and today is down to 170 million. It remains uncertain how much it will rebound in the state once the current bird flu outbreak is over.

One report says, “Although there has been a weekly increase in pullet flocks transferred to laying houses, hen numbers are constrained by the loss of close to 13 million hens due to HPAI on twelve complexes holding from 250,000 to 2.6 million hens during the 4th Quarter of 2023. Pullets are in short supply with losses of 2.5 million growing birds mainly in California.”

Other Crop News

Bacon: Blame Prop 12 or industry consolidation? Midwest hog producers are blaming California’s Proposition 12 for higher bacon prices at the supermarket this year. The animal welfare rule demands farmers give more space to the hogs as they are being raised which farmers say drives up the cost. But there’s another factor to consider. Industry consolidation in the pork industry means less competition and higher prices.

Hormel Foods, a leading pork producer in the U.S., this month reached a significant settlement in a case involving allegations of price-fixing within the pork industry. The settlement, totaling millions of dollars, addresses claims made by three different classes of pork purchasers. The settlement agreement involves a payment of $2.4 million to the commercial indirect purchaser class, $4.8 million to the class of direct pork purchasers, and $4.5 million to the consumer indirect purchaser class. 

These settlements come after a series of legal proceedings that began with the consolidation of 27 cases in December 2022, involving 146 parties. The lawsuit revolves around accusations of collusion among pork processors, who collectively control over 80% of the wholesale pork market. Smithfield is the largest pork producer, now owned by the Chinese.

Avocados: April avocado production in California is up from last year’s slow pace. The peak season runs from May to October. The California Avocado Commission says last year growers got an average of just over a dollar a pound for their smaller crop. The total value last year was $237 million compared to $486 million the year before.

Strawberries: The volume of California strawberries this spring is nearly double what it was last year at this time. In March a series of deadly atmospheric rivers created a deluge of rain that flooded the state’s strawberry fields washing away two to three months of the season. The California Strawberry Commission confirmed at least $100 million in crop loss in 2023.

Milk: Prices are looking up. Class III milk futures are pointing to higher milk prices for dairymen as the year goes on. Dairymen are getting just $15.57 per cwt this month. A dairy market report says May futures leapt $1.45 to $17.84 and June jumped $1.30 to $18.07. Second-half contracts also posted strong gains. The rebound in the cheese markets is welcome news for dairy producers around the country who have been struggling with low Class III prices and steep discounts.

Water: Friant expects 100% Class 1 delivery. Friant Water blog states “Multiple recent discussions among Friant Division Contractors and Reclamation have resulted in a consensus that an increase to 100% Class 1 allocation is likely imminent. An allocation of Class 2 water or the need for flood management actions such as Uncontrolled Season operations is uncertain pending ongoing analysis of current and projected hydrology and reservoir storage levels.”

Cherries: Ag trade publication The Packer reports that peak volume of California cherries is expected on May 18. Keith Wilson, owner of the Dinuba, Calif.-based King Fresh Produce, expects to begin harvest of California cherries on or about May 1, with no expected gaps once harvest is underway. 

“Early indications appear that the California cherry crop will yield good volume,” Wilson said.
King Fresh is one of two cherry packers based in the early cherry growing districts of the southern San Joaquin Valley of California, Wilson said. The supplier offers conventional and organic fruit.

Cherries are the first fruit to ripen in volume on the calendar in the San Joaquin Valley each year.

John Lindt
John Lindt is the publisher of Sierra2theSea.net, an online newspaper covering California’s Central Valley and Central Coast.