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Optimizing the Thanksgiving Turkey Supply Chain

This article delves into how turkeys get to your table, looking at fresh and frozen turkey transportation, cargo shipping, and the careful planning needed for holidays like Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Dinner

The Thanksgiving holiday in the United States poses a fascinating logistical challenge for the turkey industry and cargo shipping. Fresh, unfrozen turkeys have a relatively short shelf life of just 21 days, making it imperative for logistics services and freight shipping to transport approximately 45 million of these festive birds from farms to grocery store shelves in time for the Thanksgiving dinner rush. In contrast, frozen turkeys can be stored for extended periods, but their transportation, akin to reefer freight, necessitates meticulous handling and precise delivery timing, which are critical for freight companies to meet the holiday demand.


Irrespective of whether they are fresh or frozen, the annual surge in Thanksgiving turkey demand introduces unique obstacles for shippers and logistics professionals. Thanksgiving stands out as one of the rare annual events capable of inundating local grocery stores with a specific seasonal item while simultaneously pushing the nation's shipping infrastructure to its limits.


In this article, we will delve into the world of shipping professionals, logistics services, and freight companies, and their distinctive approaches to managing this exceptional case of seasonal demand in the cargo shipping and logistics industry. We will explore the essential strategies employed by shippers to maintain the efficiency and punctuality of the turkey supply chain during this bustling period.


America's Love for Turkey

In 2021, according to the USDA's data, the United States witnessed a nationwide production of an impressive 216 million turkeys, resulting in a staggering 5.56 billion pounds of turkey meat. This massive quantity of turkey meat requires meticulous and safe transportation to reach consumers across the country. Moreover, given that an estimated 4.8 billion pounds of turkey are consumed domestically and nearly half of all whole turkeys purchased in the U.S. are destined for Thanksgiving feasts, the logistics of transporting these birds become even more complex. The demand for turkey surges significantly during this festive season, necessitating precise coordination and delivery within a remarkably narrow timeframe.

A recent poll conducted on consumer preferences revealed that two out of every three people in the United States plan to make turkey their main course on Thanksgiving. Furthermore, the majority of respondents indicated their intention to enjoy turkey leftovers in the days following the holiday. When you combine these factors, it becomes evident that the average American is expected to consume approximately 16 pounds of turkey in the year 2023. This data underscores the significance of efficient and timely turkey transportation in meeting the nation's culinary preferences and traditions.


Fresh Versus Frozen Turkeys

In the context of the turkey supply chain, it's crucial to understand that the majority of turkeys consumed, approximately 90%, are frozen, while the remaining 10% are fresh. Frozen turkeys boast an extended shelf life, making the frozen turkey supply chain less time-sensitive than its fresh counterpart. Although turkey demand peaks on just three days of the year—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter—frozen turkeys can be raised and processed throughout the year. They can be efficiently transported and stored in refrigerated facilities, awaiting consumption on future occasions. If not consumed on Thanksgiving, these turkeys can be stored for Christmas or even Easter, making supply-demand planning for the frozen turkey supply chain more focused on managing supply and demand volume rather than last-minute, real-time delivery requirements. In stark contrast, the fresh turkey supply chain is significantly more challenging to manage due to its limited 21-day shelf life. Precision in supply-demand planning, scheduling, time management, and on-time delivery is paramount in this case, as fresh turkeys can spoil if not handled meticulously. Retailers collaborate closely with turkey farmers, distributors, and logistics carriers to forecast demand. Farmers must meticulously schedule the incubation of eggs and the raising of turkeys to align with consumption timelines. Carriers must ensure they have the necessary refrigerated transport capacity precisely when required. Retailers and distributors must also align their schedules with consumers' turkey possession timelines, with planning often measured in hours and days. Considering that the four states mentioned above are major producers of turkeys for the entire U.S., both fresh and frozen turkeys must be efficiently transported to domestic and international markets in time for Thanksgiving. Turkeys may be shipped directly to retailers or to third-party logistics providers (3PLs) who hold the turkeys in storage until receiving demand signals from local retailers. Coordinating logistics schedules in this context is critical to ensuring a seamless flow of turkeys to consumers during the holiday season.


Managing Thanksgiving Turkey Supply & Demand

With the consistently high and often abrupt demand for turkeys, the turkey industry has adopted an innovative approach to managing the intricate turkey supply chain. The foundation of meeting this seasonal demand lies in the availability of adequate cold storage facilities. Throughout the year, millions of turkeys are processed and promptly frozen in deep freezers to accommodate the substantial holiday demand. Notably, the peak occasions for turkey dinners are Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter Sunday. As of September 2023, a staggering 447 million pounds of turkey were in cold storage, poised to be released into the shipping frenzy that marks the official commencement of the turkey season.

This figure marks a substantial increase from the situation in 2022 when the industry grappled with a turkey shortage caused by an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus. An estimated 9.8 million birds fell victim to the virus, severely depleting America's turkey stock for the 2022 holiday season and causing a significant surge in per-pound prices.

Since 2022, the country's frozen turkey supply has largely rebounded, resulting in more stable prices. In 2023, turkey prices are estimated to be around $1.27 per pound, down from $1.55 in the previous year. Some specialty turkey products have experienced even more significant price reductions. For instance, the cost of a boneless, skinless turkey breast has decreased by an impressive 61% since August 2022. These lower prices are expected to further stimulate demand at grocery stores, especially as mid-November approaches.


How Holiday Turkey Demand Affects Shipping Capacity

Shipping turkeys in large quantities poses unique logistical challenges that go beyond simple averages, as noted by the National Turkey Federation. While the average processed turkey weighs around 15.5 pounds, the reality is more complex due to the range of sizes. Whole turkeys can weigh anywhere from 8 to 25 pounds, leading to significant variation in the weight and dimensions of each pallet since turkeys of different sizes are often palletized together.

To add some numbers to the mix, a widely accepted maximum number of turkeys per pallet is typically set at 80, thanks to insights from our Full Container Load (FCL) reefer freight experts. Assuming that approximately 46 million turkeys are required to meet the country's Thanksgiving demand each year, it's estimated that roughly 575,000 pallets of turkey will be transported across the nation during the fall season.

If we consider that 20 pallets can fit into a single truck, this translates to approximately 28,750 full truckloads dedicated to turkey transportation for delivery to local grocers in preparation for the holidays. This surge in the number of turkey-laden trucks, alongside others carrying side dishes, desserts, and essential ingredients, significantly strains carrier capacity during the holiday season.

Fortunately, whether dealing with fresh or frozen turkeys, the fundamental principles for efficient turkey delivery align with those for handling any time-sensitive freight. Effective communication, real-time freight tracking, and seamless collaboration with experienced logistics professionals remain key to ensuring that this year's unique Thanksgiving demand curve doesn't disrupt your holiday supply chain.


Conclusion

The turkey supply chain, intricately managed within the realm of cargo shipping and logistics services, plays a pivotal role in meeting the demands of Thanksgiving and other holidays. This multifaceted system distinguishes between fresh and frozen turkey supply chains, emphasizing the importance of meticulous planning. Frozen turkeys provide flexibility, concentrating on the management of supply and demand volume, while the fresh turkey supply chain necessitates precise coordination among retailers, farmers, distributors, and logistics carriers, including freight companies. These logistics companies are vital in ensuring that the major turkey-producing states efficiently supply the entire nation, requiring exact logistics scheduling to guarantee a seamless flow of turkeys to consumers' tables. The turkey supply chain serves as an exemplar of the intricate efforts underlying this cherished holiday tradition, guaranteeing a bountiful and punctual supply of turkeys year after year through freight shipping and logistical expertise.



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