Small egg producers face setbacks, compounding US shortage

Egg prices have more than doubled since the start of 2022 as a highly infectious outbreak of avian flu has ravaged US chicken flocks, severely constraining supply. But as smaller farms try to make up the shortfall left by major producers, they are struggling with their own unexpected supply constraints.

The US suffered one of the worst avian flu outbreaks on record in 2022. More than 49 million birds died from the virus or were culled during efforts to contain its spread, sending retailers scrambling to secure alternative egg sources.

As many large producers’ flocks were wiped out, small and medium-sized farms were poised to fill the egg shortfall. But they suddenly found their laying hens became less productive.

Eggs sit in the chicken coop at Skyview Acres, a farm in Winchester, Virginia on Feb. 22, 2023. Sharon Mauzy, the farm's co-owner, noticed her hens' egg production cratered in 2022.

“There are many people who have had hens that stopped laying in July, August, September, and have not laid since,” said Sharon Mauzy, co-owner of Skyview Acres, a farm in Winchester, Virginia, who also noticed a significant decline in her own hens’ egg output.

Otherwise perfectly healthy hens inexplicably stopped, or drastically reduced, their egg production.

Mauzy changed her feed to another brand and the chickens began laying again, something, she says, a tactic some other farmers have also had success with.

“They went from a commercial feed to a mill,” she said, “or they went to creating their own feed by gathering up whatever grains they wanted, and they are seeing their hens start to lay eggs again.”

“Is it the feed? We don’t know,” she said.  

The setback comes at a tense time as producers small and large face mounting input costs. Measures to protect against avian flu, like disinfecting all equipment that arrives on the farm, have added unexpected production costs, and recent inflation has driven up the price of diesel, egg cartons, labor, and feed.

Hens gather around David Bowie, a large rooster affectionately named for his mane's uncanny resemblance to the British singer's mop, at Skyview Acres, a farm in Winchester, Virginia, on Feb. 22, 2023.

“We are definitely making less this year per egg than we were in previous years,” Mauzy said, despite raising prices in 2021. Mauzy is considering closing the egg side of her business and focusing on other revenue streams. “It’s just not cost effective,” she said.  

Wholesale egg prices have retreated from their December highs, but it may take some time for consumer prices to come down. As temperatures warm and migrating birds return to the US, they bring with them the threat of new avian flu outbreaks, and inflation will likely remain above the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target in 2023.

“As long as the cost of fuel is where it is, as long as inflation is where it is, we’re not going to see a decrease,” Mauzy said.