Mississippi chicken folk: Egg prices, avian flu are no yolk

Published 8:00 am Saturday, March 4, 2023

Easter is approaching, which means consumers will soon be looking to buy eggs for dying and decorating. But with increased prices, one may have to consider an alternative, like plastic eggs.

According to the Mississippi State University Extension Service, in December 2021 the cost of a dozen eggs was $1.79, but this past December the average was as high as $4.25 per dozen.

This cost is, however, beginning to come down, Morgan’s Bestway owner Cynthia Morgan said.

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“Usually, eggs are cheaper at the first of the year,” she said, but tend to go back up around Easter.

The reason Morgan gave for the high cost of eggs is the ongoing outbreak of bird flu.

Josh Maples, an agricultural economist with the MSU Extension Center said, “Highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, which is often called bird flu, is an important concern each year, but it was especially problematic in the U.S. in 2022,” with 57 million birds affected.

And of those, 40 million were egg-laying hens lost to the disease between February and December 2022, which equated to 12 percent of egg-laying birds lost to HPAI.

“Fewer laying hens has led to fewer eggs produced and tighter supplies for egg consumers,” Maples said.

Warren County resident Cappy Martin raises chickens, and she can attest to how HPAI has affected the egg market.

“I have not seen this much interest in buying chickens since 2020. It is off the wall. Tractor Supply was selling out like 500 birds within five hours and the last time when they got a small order — 300 — they sold out in an hour, and that’s just chicks,” Martin said.

For those shopping for a chicken on chicken Facebook groups, Martin said, it will be highly unlikely to find any. But if you do, she said, the average price for the bird would probably be $25.

“And of course, it takes five months to raise a chick from a baby up to laying,” she said.

This means the cost of raising a chick can also be costly. Martin said a bag of chick feed, which is necessary for the five-month growing period is $24 for a 50-pound bag.

“So, you really just break even, it you sell a laying hen for $25,” she said.

Martin reported as did the Mississippi Board of Animal Health that in February a backyard poultry flock in Copiah County had tested positive for avian influenza.

“This is the second backyard flock to test positive for HPAI. The first confirmation was in Lowndes County in November 2022. There have also been two detections in commercial broiler flocks, one in Lawrence County in November 2022 and the other in Leake County in February. All affected facilities were quarantined, and the birds were depopulated to prevent spreading,” MSU Extension Service agent Nathan Gregory said.

Because of the state outbreaks, Martin said, the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), which is a program overseen by the USDA and managed by each state to monitor flocks and hatcheries for diseases that can devastate chicken populations, has requested that group chicken sales stop.

This has impacted Martin’s local farmers market, which takes place every other Saturday.

“Like my Farmer’s Bounty at Tractor Supply, or any swaps or auctions, there are to be no bird (sales) until after April 10. We are in quarantine. They don’t want any public sales,” Martin said. “You can still sell chicks, hatching eggs and birds from your personal property, but they don’t want people to congregate.”

Martin also sells eggs in addition to raising chickens and said the current market for fresh farm-raised eggs is about $4 a dozen.

“We kind of watch what is going on in the stores, but we know ours are fresher and have more nutrients,” she said.

For those who rely on eggs from the grocery, Morgan said, “Customers are still buying eggs, just maybe not as much. Maybe they have cut back some, but you just about have to have eggs to cook.”

If the price of eggs is too pricy for your pocketbook, MSU Extension instructor and registered dietitian Qula Madkin said there are substitutions that can be used for eggs in home cooking.

“Unsweetened applesauce and mashed banana are great substitutions for eggs in baked goods. Simply use 1/4 cup of applesauce or banana for one egg,” she said.

“Another good egg substitute is ground flaxseed or chia seeds that have fully absorbed three tablespoons of water. Baked goods may become dense by adding these seeds,” Madkin said, “But they provide tons of flavor and more fiber and healthy fats.”

Other options include yogurt, buttermilk, silken tofu, commercial egg replacers, mixed vinegar and baking soda and nut butters.

“If using egg alternatives is new to you, you may need to experiment with different options and substitutions to get the flavor and texture you desire,” Madkin said. “If you are using eggs for their protein, beans are a budget-friendly, high-protein and high-fiber option that can be used in some dishes instead of eggs.”