The impact of pandemic restrictions on the restaurant industry that reduced demand for poultry by 40 percent is what’s behind chicken producers’ decision to reduce flocks, not culling or plant closures, according to the Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC).
The organization said on May 11 that although production has been lowered by 12.6 percent for May and June and by 11 percent for July and August, flocks have so far not had to be culled due to COVID-19.
Retail sales of chicken and poultry during the lockdown have made up some of the shortfall, according to the CFC, which represent 2,800 farmers. However, approximately 32 million fewer birds will be brought to market between now and September.
“It means that I’m going to grow maybe up to 90,000 less birds in the next four months, so it’s a huge amount of kilos that I won’t produce,” said Benoît Fontaine, a poultry farmer in Lac Champlain, Quebec, and chair of the CFC.
The May and June cycle will see the original poultry target of 285 million kilograms of meat—about 123 million chickens placed in barns—reduced by 36 million kilograms, or 16 million fewer chickens, while 11 percent flock reductions for July and August will yield similar decreases in live chickens.
Fontaine’s operation is large by poultry-farming standards; his pre-pandemic production level was about “400,000 birds per cycle,” he says. He employs eight people and is currently building one of the largest barns in Quebec.
The former high school principal and second-generation chicken farmer said he shifted two staff to help finish the new barn, which will add 70,000 birds to his cycle, and hasn’t had to lay off anyone.
Cargill’s decision to temporarily shutter its Montreal meat processing plant will have a negligible effect on local poultry producers, Fontaine said.
“They were buying some chicken, but I heard they’ll be closed only three or four days,” he said. “But I mean, three or four days won’t affect all the market.”
Cargill closed the plant on May 13 after at least 64 workers tested positive for COVID-19. After all the employees are tested—expected to be done by May 15—and there are enough uninfected workers, the plant will reopen.
On May 8, CFC asked the federal government for assurances their industry would receive “depopulation values”—as it did during previous outbreaks of avian flu that necessitated flock culling—if processing closures due to COVID-19 results in having to depopulate, or cull, flocks.
“It’s 100 percent not our first option. It’s not an acceptable option to us and would only ever be done as a very, very last-minute, last-case scenario, and so far we haven’t had to do it.” said CFC spokesperson Lisa Bishop-Spencer
“We’re not asking for compensation to make up for the difference in production. The issue we have is that current government programs don’t cover the potential of having to depopulate flocks.”
Poultry consumption in Canada has been rising steadily for the last decade, and in 2018 farmers produced a record 1.47 million kilograms. Although production fell slightly last year, prices have remained relatively lower than for pork and beef.
Fontaine says that based on the provincial average of $2.01/kg paid to Quebec chicken farmers in 2018, a record year, the reduction will hurt his bottom line by about $180,000.
“But we are lucky with our supply management system that actually we are saving our industry, and I can count on my industry to support me because I support it and we are working together,” he said.
During the NAFTA renegotiations that yielded the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Canada gave up access to the country’s supply-managed dairy, egg, and poultry industries, but the continued existence of supply management remains contentious.
Less than 10 percent of Canada’s annual agriculture production, the dairy, egg, and poultry industries remain relatively protected from external market forces, unlike beef and pork or grains and other produce.
Supporters of supply management say the system ensures a safe and dependable food supply. Detractors argue that it sets up cartels operated by millionaire farmers and prevents competition and cheaper prices for consumers.
Fontaine maintains supply management “is part of the economical solution for rural Canada.”
“Don’t forget that we are living very north, and we are a small population in a large country,” he said. “So without supply management, for example, Newfoundland and Labrador or Prince Edward Island would not grow chickens.”
According to Statistics Canada, in 2017 the average net worth of a poultry and egg farmer was $6 million.