China is to begin importing live chickens from the US as feed shortages due to the coronavirus force poultry farms in the world’s second-biggest economy to start culling millions of young birds.
The culling of poultry follows the mass slaughter of pigs in China due to African swine fever over the past year and threatens to worsen a protein shortage in the country that has sparked rising inflation and soaring meat prices.
“There is no question China’s chicken population will fall sharply in the coming months,” said Qiu Cong of Jinghai Poultry Industry Group, a leading chicken producer.
“The chicks are gone and farmers are struggling to make ends meet.”
While this only represented 1 per cent of China annual production of 9.3 billion grown chickens, the trend was expected to accelerate if the nationwide shutdown that started in late January continued in the coming weeks.
African swine fever, which swept through China in 2019, wiped out two-fifths of the nation’s pig herd. Pig farmers are now also struggling to source enough feed for their animals, especially in Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak.
To boost supplies, Beijing said on Monday it would allow imports of live birds from the US. The move represented the full lifting of a ban on poultry shipments from the US that Beijing imposed after outbreaks of avian influenza there in 2015.
“For the next month or two, there is going to be some tightness of meat supply,” said Darin Friedrichs, a Shanghai-based commodity analyst at INTL FCStone.
He added that meat prices would probably remain “relatively high” even after roads and rail lines reopened.
At Jinghai, which bought poultry feed from neighbouring provinces, the delivery trucks were either stuck at roadblocks or drivers had to spend hours trying to obtain entry permits, delaying deliveries.
30,000 chickens were starving to death each day
The resulting undersupply of feed from the end of January meant 30,000 chickens were starving to death each day, Mr Qiu said.
“We are having trouble running a normal business because our chickens do not have enough to eat,” he said.
Jinghai might have to slaughter up to 10 million chicks — or 10 per cent of its annual output — if the problem continued for another two weeks.
The problems were also affecting animal feed producers because of a shortage of corn and soyabeans, their major ingredients.
A director at Charoen Pokphand Group, a leading animal feed maker, said its factories in Hubei would run out of supply in two weeks while smaller local peers would run out within days.
“Freight traffic has collapsed in Hubei,” said the director. “There are roadblocks everywhere.”
Many Chinese cities have also banned the long distance shipment of live animals for fear it could spread the virus. That has disrupted the standard industry model in which hatcheries provide baby chickens for poultry farms, which then send grown chickens to the market.
According to CnAgri, a China agriculture consultancy, 15 per cent of China’s chickens are sent to slaughterhouses while the remainder are sold to restaurants or to markets.
The transport restrictions have also left poultry farms with too many live chickens, leading to reports of baby chickens being buried alive.
In the southern city of Yulin, 13 large poultry farms have killed 6.7 million baby chickens, or four-fifths of their total stock, since the end of January, according to the local animal husbandry association.
Chicken farms in Hubei said they were slaughtering all their chicks, while farms in Guangdong were planning to start burying their chicks alive if the shutdown did not improve.
China’s official death toll and infection numbers from the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus spiked dramatically on February 13 after authorities changed their counting methods, fuelling concern the epidemic is far worse than being reported.