Why Thanksgiving turkeys will be smaller this year

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Fewer people at Thanksgiving tables is going to mean many households are looking to buy smaller turkeys. And because no one can just press a button and make smaller turkeys, grocery stores, distributors and farmers are rethinking their own longstanding Thanksgiving traditions.
Chains like Giant Eagle and Stew Leonard’s are buying smaller birds, and Walmart (WMT), the largest grocer in the United States, is increasing its availability of boneless and bone-in turkey breasts, which amount to less meat than a full bird. Meanwhile, farmers are making adjustments such as slaughtering birds earlier.

“The buying arms of the major retailers and distributors are definitely trying to slant their purchases toward smaller turkeys,” said Russ Whitman, senior vice president at Urner Barry, a commodity market research firm. That also means buying more hens, which are smaller, and fewer toms, or male birds, he said.

Around 40 million turkeys are eaten around Thanksgiving annually, according to the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade group. The group does not expect that figure to change much this year, but the sizes and types of turkey will, said Beth Breeding, spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation.

“Our research does suggest that smaller birds will be in higher demand,” said Tom Windish, Managing Director of Retail for Cargill’s North American protein business, in an emailed statement. Cargill, a major meat producer, sells turkey under the Honeysuckle White, Shady Brook Farms and Honest Turkey brands.

‘A wild turkey guess’

Stew Leonard Jr., chief executive of Stew Leonard’s, a grocery chain in the Northeast, said he increased orders from a local supplier for birds weighing less than 16 pounds this year and decreased the number of heavier birds. The chain will also shrink the size of shrimp and sushi platters for the holiday.

Jack Gridley, vice president of meat and seafood at Dorothy Lane Market, a gourmet chain in Ohio, said the company is buying 15% more 10- to 16-pound birds compared with years past and buying fewer 20- to 24-pound birds from a local farm.

Dorothy Lane Market also increased its orders of turkey breasts, which are easier to cook, because “a lot of people not used to cooking this year are going to be cooking,” Gridley said.

But the company still isn’t quite sure what to expect this year. “None of it’s science,” Gridley said. “It’s just a wild turkey guess.”

Turkey farmers have been anticipating more demand for smaller birds, and have been making adjustments accordingly.

“We harvested the birds a little bit earlier this year,” said Cody Hopkins, CEO of Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, a collection of about 40 small farms that sell meat directly to consumers online.

Typically, Grass Roots farmers slaughter birds between the ages of 14 and 16 weeks. This year, farmers harvested the birds at around 13 or 14 weeks to keep them smaller. They also adjusted some of the feed rations to slow growth, and raised more hens, which are naturally smaller.

In addition, farmers are “going to be doing different items like turkey breasts and smaller hams,” Hopkins said, “to give folks plenty of options if they’re looking for something a little bit smaller for their holiday.”

Brock Stein, president of Lewistown Valley Enterprises, which operates Koch’s Turkey Farm in Pennsylvania, said his team is producing some lighter turkeys this year. The group typically sells between 300,000 and 400,000 turkeys each Thanksgiving, and over 1.2 million turkeys annually.

But he isn’t sure what exactly customers will do this year, so he’s still producing plenty of regular-sized birds.

“No one really has the crystal ball yet,” he said. “We’re going to have to just be hopeful that even if families are at smaller gatherings they’ll still be looking for a larger bird.”

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