Poultry producers better prepared for potential bird flu return

Tim Krohn The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Farm Forum

Terry Carlson remembers the summer of 2015 all too well.

“We had 26,000 (turkeys) when we got the bird flu. We lost all of them,” said Carlson, who raises turkeys in Blue Earth County.

Now, poultry farmers are anxiously waiting as bird flu has been detected in two states, including a dangerous pathogenic virus in Tennessee.

This time around, producers and poultry experts say the state is in a much better position to head off bird flu and to respond better if it does hit.

“It’s a time to step up your biosecurity program and keep all unnecessary traffic from going around the barns,” Carlson said.

“Had it once, don’t want to have it ever again,” he said of 2015 outbreak that infected more than 100 farms in the state, forced the destruction of millions of birds and cost the state economy nearly $650 million.

“I think people are more ready now. I was at the Midwest Poultry Convention (March 15) and there was a lot of discussion about what’s going on in the southeast now.”

Avian influenza is not considered a risk to the food system.

On the same page

Abby Neu, the poultry regional educator for the University of Minnesota Extension, was also at the big poultry convention, where she was demonstrating the best biosecurity practices for producers.

She had a trailer at the show with equipment showing how to properly disinfect boots and clothing and take other precautions to prevent contaminants from entering barns.

She said the last outbreak taught everyone lessons. “This is a large convention with more than 3,000 people from across the country. Everyone is on the same page. The little guys and the big guys are working together. Everyone is better prepared.”

The current concern comes as the early spring opens water on lakes and rivers, leading to the early migration of wild birds that carry the virus. In 2015, a virus existed in wild ducks and geese in its deadliest form, the highly pathogenic variety. Wild birds were less vulnerable to the disease, but when the virus reached a poultry flock, birds started dying immediately.

There is also a common low pathogenic virus that produces few symptoms in poultry. That strain was found recently in some turkeys in Wisconsin. Those turkeys are still alive and being monitored rather than destroyed.

While it’s known the virus is in wild birds, it’s still difficult or impossible to track exactly how the virus is introduced or spread among turkey and chicken farms. “We’re not sure how it was introduced in Tennessee,” Neu said. The Tennessee virus is a North American strain, so she said they know it’s not from Asia or Europe, places where the virus is rampant.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken has sent a letter to President Trump asking for measures to help prevent the recent bird flu from spreading to Minnesota and other states.

Franken said that federal funding through the USDA in 2015 helped put protocols in place to better address outbreaks of bird flu.

“I call on you to move to rapidly implement those protocols,” Franken said in the letter.

He asked that sufficient funding be put in for the fiscal year 2018 budget to support avian influenza surveillance and outbreak response through the USDA.

“Combating the last avian influenza outbreak required $1 billion in federal funding,” he wrote. “The USDA currently has less than $90 million available for such efforts.

Neu and others aren’t predicting there will be another outbreak in Minnesota this spring but say the possibility is heightened during wild bird migration.

“People aren’t panicked. They’re certainly increasing their awareness and surveillance, though.”

She said some of the big lessons learned was to closely control vehicles on farms to prevent them from introducing the virus. Trucks come onto the farms regularly, to make various deliveries or to collect dead birds. “It’s all the things you didn’t think of on an everyday basis before, about the vehicles that come on the property. Those flows of business are really being watched now.”

Carlson said that’s been the big takeaway for him and other producers. “Making sure you’re not tracking anything into the barn.”

For example, he said producers avoid going in and out of empty barns to remove manure during times of wild bird migration to prevent tracking a virus that might be in fields where manure is spread back into the barns.

Carlson now raises about 16,000 breeder hens. They start laying eggs at about 30 weeks and Carlson supplies them to breeder operations who need them for egg production.