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The U.S. poultry market totaled $43 billion in chicken sales in 2007. Chicken prices are highly dependent on chicken feed prices. In fact, feed costs make up 65% of the cost of raising a chicken. Reliance on corn chicken feed (especially distiller's dry grain--see DDG under Ethanol Production) makes chicken prices susceptible to significant changes in corn prices. Although the skyrocketing cost of corn has increased the cost of producing chicken by more than one-third in early 2008, large domestic supplies have left retail prices relatively unchanged .
Chicken prices are heavily dependent on favorable pricing of feedstuffs, such as corn prices and soybeans, as feed makes up the majority of the cost of raising poultry. Corn prices have risen sharply since the beginning of 2007 - more than 150% in 2007 and early 2008 - as ethanol producers have increased their demand for the commodity (rising oil prices, in turn, have increased demand for ethanol). Corn is also the main input for many other food products such as high fructose corn syrup that are in increasing worldwide demand - but nonetheless the USDA expects U.S. farmers to plant 8% less corn in 2008, lowering supply and increasing prices. Additionally, the June 2008 flooding of Iowa is expected to destroy more than 200 million bushels of corn, further reducing supply. Any long-term, significant increase in feedstuffs prices has the potential to seriously increase chicken prices.
Though chicken prices are mostly responsive to input feed prices, they are also affected by international competition, high domestic production, seasonal fluctuations, and fear of avian bird flu. Though only 16% of total domestic production was exported in 2007, international competition can drive chicken prices up or down. Strong export markets have been the main drivers of the poultry industry's growth, so a global surplus has an adverse effect on domestic producers. Global surpluses can be exacerbated by domestic surpluses, the shortest of which can cause long lasting price swings. Next, seasonal hatchings create a variable supply of chickens which in turn cause prices to fluctuate. Finally, fears of avian flu decrease chicken demand, and therefore chicken prices, as consumers react to outbreaks of the disease and substitute other protein sources, such as pork or beef, for chicken.
Chicken producers are transitioning to prepared foods, such as breaded chicken strips, buffalo wings, and chicken nuggets. These products carry a higher margin than fresh chicken, because they are sold one step closer to the consumer on the supply chain - to stores, rather than to butchers who then mark up the meat once again before selling to stores. Furthermore, for companies such as Pilgrim's Pride (PPC), prepared meats decrease feed costs from 33-49% of total production cost to 17-24% of total cost. Rising commodity prices factor into the price that consumers must pay for their chicken, but these input costs cannot be passed on in their entirety. By eliminating an extra step in the sales process, chicken producers can pass a higher percentage of production costs onto the consumer as well.
Pilgrim's Pride (PPC) is the largest producer of US chicken with 25% of the US market.
Tyson Foods (TSN) is the second largest producer of US chicken with 20% of the US market.
Perdue Farms is the third largest producer of US chicken with 8% of the US market.
Wayne Farms and Sanderson Farms (SAFM) are tied as the fourth largest producers of US chicken with 5% apiece of the US Market.
Note: Market share data from Pilgrim's Pride Corporate Fact Sheet