If you’re wondering which came first, the chicken or the egg, Jerry Wilkens and others in the egg business might not have the opportunity to debate the issue during this time of the year.
For about four weeks in the spring, Wilkens and the rest of the industry take on a colossal workload that doesn’t allow much time for chatting — let alone responding to inquiries that can’t really be answered.
Keeping up with the increased egg demand that Easter brings is about all Wilkens, the other 84 employees at Morning Fresh Farm and other retail egg producers can squeeze in.
In the month leading up to the spring holiday, Morning Fresh produces about two and half times more eggs than its normal amount.
At the Easter-preparation rate, the farm, located near Platteville, is putting out about 13.5 million eggs each week by itself.
The Easter-season output for Colorado — which ranks 21st nationally in egg production — is about (????) million per week.
One way egg operations ramp up production, Wilkens explained, is by expanding their flock sizes.
Wilkens said the number of hens at Morning Fresh Farms during the year ranges from about 850,000 to 1.2 million.
However, such swings in the number of birds throughout the year can only account for so much of the 250 percent increase in egg production needed heading into Easter.
Egg producers achieve the rest of their additional production by altering feed rations and by simulating the lighting in coups to mirror sunny, spring days.
The birds’ diets and such lighting make hens more productive, according to Wilkens, who is president of the Colorado Egg Producers organzation.
“It gets pretty crazy for us around here,” Wilkens said of the Easter season. “And then, about three days out from Easter, our coolers are like ghost towns.
“Everything is gone.”
Wilkens added that Colorado is on pace this year to meet its Easter demand, despite a fire last May at the Boulder Valley Poultry farm near Roggen, in which 500,000 hens were killed.
The loss accounted for about one-eighth of the state’s egg-laying hens.
Overall, though, the extensive loss from the blaze didn’t cause short-term or long-term egg shortages or increased prices at grocery stores, since egg demand is low during May and other months following Easter, and many other local producers agreed to step up production as needed in response to Boulder Valley’s loss.
Prior to the fire, the Boulder Valley Poultry egg farm, located just south of Interstate 76, had about 1 million hens and produced about 25 percent of the eggs sold in the state, Wilkins said.
When asked how the recovery has been at Boulder Valley this year, employees there referred inquiries to a corporate spokesperson with Land O’ Lakes, who did not return calls this week.
Once the dust has cleared from the Easter rush, producers make feed and lighting changes as needed and begin culling flocks, with some birds going into poultry processing.
After Easter, producers begin getting operations in line to meet the demands of the rest of the year.
Demand for poultry or eggs drops off in the hot summer months, Wilkens explained, but rebounds when thousands of families sit down for meals around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“As soon as Easter arrives, we actaully have to start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas, and start making the needed adjustments,” Wilkens said. “And as soon as Christmas gets here, we’re already thinking Easter.
“It’s kind of funny that way.”
Wilkens and others in the egg business have had reason to laugh or smile recently, with the industry seeing solid demand and prices.
According to reports this month from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wholesale egg prices in the U.S. recently have been at about $1.25 per dozen — just under the record-high average of $1.28 in 2008.
Overall, wholesale egg prices this year are expected to average at $1.16 per dozen.
USDA reports also noted that egg operations are expected to produce slightly more this year, according to reports, with per capita egg consumption nudging up.
U.S. consumption hit an all-time high in 2006, at 260 eggs per person per year. That number dropped the next five years to about 248 eggs per person in 2011, but is expected to rebound to about 252 eggs per person this year.
USDA experts predict a slight uptick in egg consumption due to the increases of prices for meat-based protein, stemming from the drought.
“We’ve really had some pretty good years recently ... just a couple rough ones,” Wilkens said. “And it looks like we’re wrapping another successful Easter.”