Turkey farmers brace for possible return of bird flu

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Farm Forum

LITCHFIELD, Minn. – Minnesota poultry farms are concerned the arrival of the fall waterfowl migration could bring with it the return of avian flu.

The disease clobbered the state’s turkey and chicken industries last spring with over $600 million in losses, but researchers still don’t have a solid answer for how the virus spread to more than 100 farms in Minnesota.

There’s a consensus that migrating ducks and geese carried bird flu into the state. However, thousands of waterfowl droppings have been tested for the virus and there hasn’t been a single positive result.

Undaunted, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employees are still sloshing through the state’s lakes and sloughs, hoping to pick up the trail of the virus from animals caught in live traps and tested.

So far, none of the birds trapped have been found to be carriers of the virus.

“Whether the virus will come back or not is unpredictable,” said state veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann.

In the state’s largest turkey-producing county, Kandiyohi, economic development director Steve Renquist says there’s no doubt bird flu was a serious financial blow to any farmer affected, as well as to trucking and other associated businesses. But he says so far at least, there have been few economic ripples visible beyond the turkey industry.

“Quite frankly, we have not seen bankruptcy sales,” said Renquist. “We haven’t seen store closings. Our unemployment is almost at historic low levels here in Kandiyohi County.”

Farm management specialist Keith Olander at Central Lakes College in Staples, Minn., says poultry producers hit by bird flu last spring survived for several reasons. They tapped into financial reserves they’d built up and bankers extended a helping hand with credit. The government also reimbursed the value of still healthy birds that were killed.

But Olander worries what will happen to those farms if avian influenza returns.

“I know that there would be a number of operations that would not be able to sustain multiple hits,” said Olander.