Bigger chickens: Bad news on wing for hoops fans?

Minneapolis Star TribuneApril 1, 2013 

BIZ BIGCHICKENS-BIZPLUS 1 MS

Chicks flock together at a new chicken farm started by David Schumann and Tracy Schumann-Scapanski in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota.

RICHARD SENNOTT — MCT

— At America’s sports bars, chicken wings are as essential to March Madness as man-to-man defense and the three-point shot.

But as this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament rolls on, the cruel economics of the chicken wing is squeezing restaurant chains and putting upward pressure on prices for customers.

With breeding advances, the size of America’s chickens — and their wings — is rising relentlessly. As chief executive Sally Smith of Buffalo Wild Wings recently explained to stock analysts: “Five wings yield more ounces of chicken than six used to.”

Sounds like good news for wing joints, right? No way. Chains like Buffalo Wild Wings sell by the unit — a six-piece plate with fries and a beer, anyone? — but buy by the pound. Take one wing away, even if the rest are meatier, and customers might not be happy.

The average chicken carcass nowadays is almost 50 percent bigger than it was 30 years ago. But, as agribusiness consultant Len Steiner put it, an 8-pound bruiser of a bird “still has only two wings.”

Wholesale wing prices soared 76 percent on average in 2012 over 2011, hitting highs not seen in at least 20 years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Other factors are also pressuring prices, particularly last year’s drought. It drove up the price of corn, the main component of chicken feed, which is the biggest cost in raising a bird. Chicken farmers cut back on their flocks, tightening wing supply.

And demand is growing, driven in part by the success of fast-growing Buffalo Wild Wings. Even fast-food behemoth McDonald’s is testing wings.

“Chicken wings have gotten into so many restaurant concepts that it’s put a real strain on (supply),” said Steiner, who co-writes the Daily Livestock Report for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The advance of chicken technology is on display at the barn near Rice, Minn., where David Schumann raises birds for the Upper Midwest’s largest producer, GNP Co.

Schumann is one of about 400 farmers, mostly in Minnesota, who raise chickens for St. Cloud, Minn.-based GNP. Like most GNP farmers, he has only one barn and also raises something else — in his case, cattle.

He and his wife, Tracy Scapanski-Schumann, run the chicken barn with a computer’s aid. Water rations, feed flow and air temperature — chicks like it hot; older birds, not so much — are all automated.

Currently, their 37,440-square-foot barn houses 53,000 birds who turned 17 days old Friday. By about April 26, they’ll be ready for shipment to one of GNP’s two processing plants, and a new flock will arrive soon after. Nowadays, it takes about 42 days to grow a 5-pound bird, compared with about 60 days three decades ago, said Bill Lanners, GNP’s director of live strategies.

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