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— John Robert Hart of Prairie Grove makes his living raising Cornish game hens for Tyson Foods, in addition to operating a small dairy farm. He and other local Cornish hen growers in this region have less to do lately as slumping consumer demand prompted production cuts in the specialty poultry product.

Hart has grown the petite specialty birds for 30 years and said it’s about as slow as he can remember with respect to the number of flocks he gets per year.

“Tyson picked up our flock of hens last week and said it would be about 21 days before they delivered the next flock. That’s four weeks with birds and about four weeks with the houses sitting empty,” Hart said.

He said in a normal growing year he would raise eight flocks, now he’s hoping to get six.

Empty houses are a serious drain of a farm’s cash flow, said Frank Jones of Performance Poultry Consulting in Springdale.

Cornish game hens are a specialty market with the finished bird weighing 2 pounds ready to cook.

“As a single-serving item, I can see where cash conscious consumers would opt for a bigger bang for their buck in a 6-pound broiler,” Jones said.

At local grocery stores in the region on Friday, the 2-pound bird sold for an average price of $3.49, a twin pack of slightly larger birds cost $7.55.

“The smaller birds command a premium because they cost the grower and integrator more to raise. They are slow growing and their feed contains higher protein content throughout the growing cycle. Smaller birds also require warmer houses, which costs growers morein utilities,” said Lionel Barton, emeritus faculty at the University of Arkansas Poultry Science Center.

The sluggish economy has dampened Cornish hen sales both in the U.S and abroad, said Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson.

“Tyson responded by reduced production at its Randall Road processing plant in Springdale as we work to balance supply with demand. We are hopeful business will pick up through the holiday season and as the economy improves,” Mickelson said.

Tyson Foods commands about two-thirds of the Cornish hen marketshare nationwide. It processes just over 1 million Cornish game hens per week for domestic and international retail and food service, he said. The second largest supplier of Cornish game hens is Perdue Farms, the nation’s third-largest poultry company, based in Salisbury, Md., according to the National Chicken Council.

Historical Hens

Rock Cornish game hens have been a significant part of Tyson’s product offering since they were introduced by the company in the mid-1960s, Mickelson said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies a Cornish game hen as young, immature chicken (usually 5 to 6 weeks of age), weighing not more than 2 pounds readytocook weight.

The breeding stock originated with the Cornish males crossed with the White Plymouth Rock females to yield a slowgrowing, large-breasted bird, Barton said.

He said Northwest Arkansas got its first look at the Cornish breed about 1951 when local poultry genetic pioneer Charles Vantress won the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest sponsored by A&P Food Store.

Tyson Foods introduced Rock Cornish game hens as a specialty item to appeal to consumers demanding upscale products in the early 1960s, Mickelson said.

“These smaller single-serving birds commanded a higher price and began being served in elegant restaurants as a alternative to pheasant. The Cornish were also served under glass,” Barton said.

Mickelson said, historically, the product has fulfilled the needs of consumers seeking smaller portions and they are most popular during the holiday season.

According to the book, “Tyson: From Farm to Market,” in the 1960s the company developed a way to generate more stable margins through its Rock Cornish line.

“The birds were sold frozen with a fixed price, 50 cents each instead of the going rate of about 20 cents a pound. By selling Cornish birds for up to six months at a time with no price change, Tyson could achieve the marketing innovation of projected margins.”

Don Tyson is quoted in the book as saying, “With Cornish, we didn’t have the market pressures you’d have in the basic commodity market … You could sell chickens and it didn’t follow the market. It was a real change. We liked that.”

Tyson’s Rock Cornish line is produced exclusively at the company’s Randall Road plant, which covers more than117,000 square feet and employs 425 people.

The Randall Road facility processes six brands of Cornish game hens, including the Tyson, Tasty Bird and Patti Jean.

The finished product leaves the plant in an uncooked form. Most of it is frozen.

A majority of the product is sold to retailers, while the remainder is marketed to foodservice companies or international customers.

News, Pages 21 on 11/18/2009

Print Headline: Cornish game hen sales dampened

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