When Turkeys Fly — The Thanksgiving Supply Chain Rush

Nov 10, 2023

A fresh, unfrozen turkey has a shelf life of just 21 days — a short time to move roughly 45 million of the festive fowls from farms to grocery store shelves in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Alternatively, a frozen turkey can last much longer in a freezer, but like most reefer freight requires expert handling and precise delivery timing to keep the holiday surge sufficiently sated.

Whether fresh or frozen, the annual spike in holiday turkey demand presents a unique set of challenges for shippers. Thanksgiving in the U.S. is one of a rare handful of events each year capable of flooding local groceries with a unique seasonal item while pushing the country’s shipping lanes to max capacity.

Let’s take a look at how shipping professionals handle this extreme example of a seasonal demand and examine key strategies shippers use to keep the turkey supply chain running on time.


America’s Taste for Turkey

The USDA reported a nationwide production of more than 216 million birds in 2021 — that’s 5.56 billion pounds of turkey meat in need of safe transport. Additionally, with an estimated 4.8 billion pounds consumed domestically and roughly half of all whole turkeys purchased in the U.S. destined for Thanksgiving feasting, most of that figure requires transport within an exceedingly narrow delivery window.

A recent poll showed two out of three people plan to eat turkey as their main course on Thanksgiving, with the majority of respondents planning to eat turkey leftovers in the days that follow. All told, the average American will consume approximately 16 pounds of turkey in 2023.

Managing Thanksgiving Turkey Supply & Demand

With demand this high (and often sudden), it’s no wonder the industry takes an innovative approach to managing the turkey supply chain.

The key to meeting holiday demand begins with sufficient cold storage. Millions of turkeys are processed throughout the year and frozen in a deep freezer to account for massive holiday demand (the tentpole days for turkey dinners are Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Sunday). As of September 2023, 447 million pounds of turkey sat in cold storage awaiting the shipping frenzy signaling the true start of turkey season.

This figure is up significantly from 2022, when the industry experienced a turkey shortage due to an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus. An estimated 9.8 million birds were victims of the virus, which severely depleted America’s turkey stock for the 2022 holiday season and inflated per-pound prices dramatically.

Since 2022 the country’s frozen turkey supply has been largely replenished. Turkey prices are estimated to be around $1.27 per pound in 2023 (down from $1.55 last year) with some specialty products dropping even lower. For example, the cost of a boneless, skinless turkey breast has dipped 61% since August 2022. Lower prices are expected to bring even greater demand to grocery stores by mid-November.


By The Numbers: How Holiday Turkeys Impact Carrier Capacity

Though the National Turkey Federation (yes, really) estimates the average processed turkey weighs about 15.5 lbs, shipping turkeys at immense volume is more complex than simple averages. Most whole birds weigh somewhere between 8-25 lbs, making each individual pallet’s weight and dimensions highly variable (since turkeys of all sizes are palletized together).

With the consensus max number of turkeys to a pallet is capped at 80 (shoutout to our FCL reefer freight experts for the inside scoop on that one) and assuming 46 million turkeys are needed to serve the country’s annual swell of Thanksgiving demand each year, approximately 575,000 pallets of turkey can be expected to traverse the country this fall.

At 20 pallets per truck, that equates to 28,750 full truckloads requiring reefer services for turkey delivery to local grocers in time for the holidays. Tens of thousands of turkey-filled trucks (not to mention others stuffed with side dishes, desserts and key ingredients) naturally place considerable strain on holiday season carrier capacity.

Fortunately, whether fresh or frozen, the base principles guiding efficient turkey delivery are consistent with any other time-sensitive freight — effective communication, real-time freight tracking and seamless collaboration with experienced logistics professionals will ensure this year’s distinct Thanksgiving demand curve won’t stifle your holiday supply chain.

Simplify your Next Shipment with First Call Logistics​

Building and managing cost-efficient supply chains is a full-time job. First Call’s rare combination of in-house assets, expert problem-solving and track record of stellar customer service makes us the 3PL of choice for business partners with a wide range of shipping needs.

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