At the beginning of the 21st century, West Virginia’s poultry industry includes some of the best-known names in the business: Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, and, until recently, British United Turkeys of America (BUTA). From the fully integrated operation of Pilgrim’s Pride, which bought out WLR Foods in 2001, to the turkey breeder operation of the Aviagen division which bought out BUTA, poultry production brings in more than $250 million a year. Broiler sales account for about two-thirds of that.
Poultry accounts for more than half of all cash receipts in agriculture in the state. In addition, nearly 3,000 people are employed in the various plant operations. About 270 million chick eggs are produced in West Virginia each year, mostly for hatching. Annually the growers raise about 90 million broilers and more than four million turkeys; the hatcheries set millions of eggs a week. The center of the state’s poultry industry is in the South Branch Valley and the five counties of the Eastern Panhandle, where most of the 350 producers of broilers and turkeys are located.
Records were first kept on chicken production in 1924, although poultry research began at West Virginia University in 1897. In 1919, a poultry extension program was started, and in 1934 the first West Virginia State Poultry Association meeting was held in Morgantown. That annual event moved to Moorefield in 1953 and has been there ever since.
In January 1938, records indicated there were four million chickens on farms in West Virginia. Turkeys numbered 274,000. There was no reference to broiler chickens at that time, but two years later four million broilers were produced. During World War II, broiler meat production was emphasized to supply food for the war effort.
Beginning in 1950, great changes took place in the poultry industry. Poultry farming changed from the keeping of a flock of chickens as part of a diversified farm operation to the specialized production of broilers under contract to a major meat processor. Disease and parasite controls, feed-conversion enhancements, accelerated growth, and bigger housing were among the changes. As compared to early tar paper sheds with dirt floors, today 25,000 broilers are housed in 40-by 500-foot houses where heat, water, and feed are controlled by computers. A three-and-a-half pound broiler is raised for slaughter in six weeks, and about 325,000 are processed each day at the plant in Moorefield.
In the 1980s, the West Virginia poultry industry escaped potential disaster after Avian influenza was detected in Virginia and also in Pennsylvania. The state’s borders were closed to outside birds, while farmers tightened security and sanitation measures. The preventive measures worked, and the virus was kept outside the state.
In 1985, a disastrous flood hit West Virginia. Poultry houses, along with many thousands of birds, were lost; the processing plants were flooded; and the South Branch Valley Railroad, which brought in grain and other products for feed, was devastated. Growers whose flocks were not flooded received air-lifted feed until roads could be opened. The plants were back in business within two weeks as mud was hosed out, the machinery fixed or replaced, and potable water was restored.
The last decade of the 20th century saw many changes in the poultry industry. Wampler-Longacre bought out Rockingham Poultry Marketing Cooperative and became WLR Foods, Inc. Hester Industries, a family-owned processing operation, was sold to ConAgra, one of the nation’s largest diversified food industries. Perdue established breeder flocks in Hardy and Pendleton counties and then purchased Advantage Foods, a processing operation in Petersburg, which it later closed. Pilgrim’s Pride bought out ConAgra early in the new century, and Perdue acquired WLR.
An ongoing challenge of the poultry industry in West Virginia is to meet the opposition from environmental groups, which claim poultry is responsible for putting unwanted nutrients in the watershed in the form of massive amounts of chicken manure. A cooperative effort by the industry, the state, and various agencies has established composting, litter controls, and sale of litter out of the area.
This Article was written by Phoebe Heishman
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
Hyre, H. M. & B. W. Moore. The West Virginia Poultry Association: 1934-1984. Moorefield: West Virginia Poultry Association, 1985.
Office of West Virginia Agricultural Statistics. "," Annual Bulletin No. 31. 2000.