Focus on Ag: Sorting out the facts regarding avian influenza

Kent Thiesse
Farm Management Analyst
Kent Thiesse

Poultry producers in the Upper Midwest have been hit hard by the latest outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), which was first detected in southeast U.S. wild bird flocks in January.

By late March, the HPAI virus had moved north through several states and was infecting commercial turkey and egg laying flocks. This was the first major avian influenza outbreak in the U.S. since the serious H5N2 avian flu outbreak in 2015.

While there is pretty good science and research surrounding the occurrence, control, and management of the HPAI outbreak, there continues to be some misinformation regarding how the virus spreads and how to best manage poultry flocks that are impacted by the virus.

The state Departments of Agriculture and Boards of Animal Health in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and other states work closely with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to trace the causes of the HPAI virus and the rapid spread of the disease.

These state entities have also coordinated with USDA on ways to best manage and control the disease, utilizing the research, data and experience gained from the 2015 avian flu outbreak for guidance.

Tracking the virus

Based on data and evidence gathered during the 2015 outbreak, as well as during the current HPAI epidemic, federal and state officials believe that the disease is primarily being spread by migratory birds as they move north in the spring.

The timing of the HPAI infections in the U.S. this year would seem to correspond to the assumption of the disease spreading through the movement of migratory birds.

The spread of the disease in the U.S. this year has been most prevalent in the northern portions of the Mississippi flyway, which includes Iowa, Minnesota, eastern Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. There has also been a significant HPAI outbreak in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania, which are in the Atlantic flyway.

As of May 4, USDA APHIS reported 284 confirmed cases of HPAI disease in the U.S., including 171 confirmed cases in commercial poultry flocks and 114 confirmed cases in smaller backyard flocks.

Minnesota had 57 commercial flocks that had been confirmed with the HPAI virus as of May 4, which leads all other states for the number of commercial flocks infected with the disease.

The disease has been confirmed in wide area across the state; however, the greatest total number of flocks impacted has been in 5 or 6 counties in central Minnesota that have a high concentration of market turkey production. A total of approximately 2.9 million birds in Minnesota had been lost due the HPAI virus as of May 4, which were primarily from commercial turkey farms.

Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production, raising over 40 million birds on 666 turkey farms in 2021, which accounted for approximately 18% of the turkeys produced in the U.S.

According to USDA data, Iowa had lost 14.4 million birds in 15 large commercial flocks and a few backyard poultry flocks due to the HPAI virus, based on confirmed cases of the disease as of May 4. Iowa is the top egg producing state in the U.S. and ranks high in turkey production.

Bird losses in other Upper Midwest, as of May 4, included Nebraska with 4.8 million birds lost, Wisconsin with 3 million birds lost, and South Dakota with 1.7 million birds lost.

Outside this region, Pennsylvania has also stood out with 3.9 million birds lost.

How avian influenza spreads

The actual spread of the disease in commercial or backyard poultry flocks can occur through direct bird-to-bird contact with wild birds or other infected birds, as well as with other wild animals.

The HPAI virus is highly contagious to domestic poultry flocks and can be easily spread at poultry production sites through contaminated equipment and poultry bedding, as well as contaminated clothes and shoes of workers.

Because of the highly contagious nature of HPAI virus, a strong “biosecurity” program is one of the best ways to present the disease from spreading from farm-to-farm. USDA and state officials are encouraging poultry operations of all sizes to review, and if necessary, to step-up biosecurity efforts on their farms.

Once the HPAI virus is confirmed on a site, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health (BAH) follows USDA APHIS guidelines, which includes quarantining of the premises at that site and prohibiting the movement of poultry on or off the site until the quarantine is lifted. This includes a requirement that all birds be destroyed that are on a farm that has been identified with the HPAI virus.

The BAH works with the poultry flock owner and manager of commercial sites to develop a flock depopulation plan and to review potential indemnity payments for the lost birds.

Following the euthanasia process, the lost birds are typically composted on the infected site to reduce the spread of the disease. After depopulation has been completed and the facilities have been properly cleaned and disinfected, it takes approximately one month before the quarantine can be lifted and more birds can be placed in the facilities.

Based on USDA guidelines, the BAH also sets up a control area that is just over six miles in radius around an infected site. All poultry production sites within this control area are also placed under quarantine and must undergo regular testing of birds for the HPAI virus and follow other USDA protocols for the virus. No birds may be moved on or off premises without a negative test for the virus and a MN BAH permit.

USDA and state officials have been consistent in saying that there is very little risk to humans from the HPAI virus. They also have re-enforced the fact that turkey, eggs and other retail poultry products are completely safe to eat, and that the virus poses no risk to the U.S. food supply.

Thus far, there has been very little impact from HPAI outbreak on the retail poultry and egg market in the U.S. If production losses continue to increase, already tight supply chains in some areas of the U.S. may be affected in the future.

Most experts expect the HPAI virus to continue for a few more weeks, and then begin to subside once we have more sunshine and warmer outside temperatures on a consistent basis.

The spread of disease seems to be reduced once the spring wild bird migration slows down; however, there is still some uncertainty regarding the spread of the disease. USDA and private companies have been working on potential vaccines to fight against avian influenza viruses; however, as of now, there is not a commercial vaccine that is currently available.

As was mentioned earlier, the avian influenza virus can also affect smaller, backyard-type poultry flocks, as well as the large commercial poultry farms. In fact, there have already been several confirmed cases of HPAI virus on the smaller-type poultry farms in several states.

State officials are monitoring potential spread of the HPAI virus in smaller poultry flocks very closely in order to determine if this could impact poultry exhibits at State Fairs and County Fairs later this summer. Some states already have some restrictions in place regarding poultry exhibitions.

Websites and hotlines

The best sources of information and data are through the USDA APHIS website and from the Department of Agriculture or Board of Animal Health in the affected states. Here are website links to some of these resources:

  • Minnesota Department of Agriculture website: www.mda.state.mn.us/hpai
  • Minnesota Board of Animal Health website: www.bah.state.mn.us/hpai/
  • Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship website: https://iowaagriculture.gov/
  • Nebraska Department of Agriculture website: https://nda.nebraska.gov/animal/avian/index.html
  • USDA Animal and Plant Health Service (APHIS) website: www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/avian-influenza

The Minnesota Board of Animal health has established a hotline number to report potential avian influenza cases and to answer other questions regarding the HPAI outbreak at 833-454-0156.

Many times, dealing with the financial impacts and mental stress of an avian flu outbreak can be trying on farm operators and their families. The Minnesota Department of agriculture has low interest disaster loans available through the Rural Finance Authority and has set up a Rural Stress Hotline at 833-600-2670.

For additional information contact Kent Thiesse, farm management analyst and senior vice president, MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, Minn., at 507-381-7960 or kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.