If you’re wondering which came first, the chicken or the egg, Jerry Wilkins and others in the egg business might not have time to debate the issue during this part of the year.
For about four weeks in the spring, Wilkins and the rest of the industry take on a colossal workload that doesn’t allow much opportunity for excess chatting.
Keeping up with the sharp increase in egg demand that Easter brings is just about all that Wilkins, the other 84 employees at Morning Fresh Farms and many egg producers can squeeze in.
During the month leading up to the spring holiday, the family-owned Morning Fresh Farms produces about two and half times more eggs than its normal output.
At the Easter-preparation rate, the farm, located near Platteville, Colo., puts out about 13.5 million eggs each week.
One way egg operations ramp up production, Wilkins explained, is by expanding flock sizes.
Wilkins said the number of hens at Morning Fresh Farms during the year ranges from about 850,000 to 1.2 million.
However, such shifts 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, said Wilkins, who is president of the Colorado Egg Producers Association.
“It definitely gets pretty crazy for us around here,” Wilkins said of the Easter season. “And then, about three days out from Easter, our coolers are like ghost towns.
“Everything is gone.”
Wilkins added that Colorado, which ranks 21st nationally in egg production, is on pace this year to meet its Easter demand, despite a fire last May at the Boulder Valley Poultry farm near Roggen, which killed 500,000 hens.
The loss accounted for about one-eighth of the state’s egg-laying hens.
In general, 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, egg producers make feeding and lighting changes as needed and begin culling flocks, with some birds going into poultry production.
After Easter, egg farms 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, Wilkins explained, but rebounds when thousands of families sit down for meals around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“As soon as Easter arrives, we actually have to start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas, and start making the needed adjustments,” Wilkins said. “And when Christmas gets here, we’re already thinking Easter. “It’s kind of funny that way.”
Wilkins 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, with per capita egg consumption nudging up.
According to the USDA, U.S. consumption hit an all-time high in 2006, in the midst of the low-carb diet craze, at 260 eggs per person per year.
That number dropped during 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 for prices of meat-based protein, caused by the drought.
“We’ve really had some pretty good years recently ... just a couple rough ones,” Wilkins said. “And it looks like this year will be another solid one, as we’re wrapping another successful Easter.” ❖