Iowa bird farmers prepare for possible return of avian flu

Last year's outbreak considered worst animal health emergency in U.S. history

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DES MOINES — As a grim anniversary approaches, Iowa chicken and turkey farmers stand on vigilant watch.

Iowa bird farmers were conducting business as usual this time a year ago. Roughly a month later, the first case of bird flu was confirmed.

In the months that ensued, the disease decimated Iowa chicken and turkey flocks, resulting in the deaths of more than 31.5 million birds over the spring and summer of 2015. The financial impact to the state’s economy was more than $1 billion, according to one report.

As that anniversary approaches and migratory birds return to Iowa, chicken and turkey farmers are keeping a close eye on their flocks, hoping to prevent a recurrence of the destructive bird flu, or catch a recurrence quickly.

“We’re coming into a time where I think everyone in the industry is very mindful of our experience last year,” said Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association. “And I know in talking with our farmers that they’re doing everything they can to keep their flocks safe during this year’s migration.”

“It’s definitely creating that sense of awareness and observation,” said Greta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation.

As bird farmers look cautiously ahead, they remain mindful of the past.

In 2015, the bird flu, or bird flu, infected 77 sites in 18 Iowa counties. More than 31.5 million birds — the vast majority of which were chickens — died from the disease or were destroyed because their flock became infected.

In addition to the crippling impact to Iowa farms, the bird flu was projected to cause $1.2 billion in lower economic output statewide and nearly 8,500 fewer jobs, according to a report published last August by Decisions Innovation Solutions for Iowa Farm Bureau.

The devastation was felt nationwide — in 21 states, affecting 232 sites and resulting in the deaths of nearly 50 million birds. Federal officials consider it the worst animal health emergency in U.S. history.

As farmers and government officials in Iowa dealt with the devastation, a common discussion was the need to prepare for a possible recurrence when migratory birds and possible carriers of the disease return in the spring of 2016.

“As for the future risk, the entire industry is reviewing all of their biosecurity protocols. But since about 16 percent of all wild water fowl are carriers of bird flu, the potential for exposure is difficult to eliminate,” Dave Miller, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s research and commodity services director, said in a statement released with the report. “Farms are working to minimize contact of their birds with wild birds, but it is very difficult to keep out sparrows, starlings, and everything that migrates over these barns.”

Olson and Irwin said bird farmers are taking precautionary measures, most aimed at reducing traffic and the spread of disease. Steps include restricting access to farm property, installing showers and even having workers wear separate clothing and boots while on the farm.

“They’ve adopted a lot of new strategies to keep the birds healthier,” Irwin said.

Officials said farmers also are developing protocols to have a rapid response prepared in case the bird flu strikes again.

“We’re working with farmers, adapting and writing their own biosecurity plan,” Irwin said.

She said she is hosting training next week in Storm Lake. “They’re going through that process: ‘What do I need to do (and) who’s going to help me?’ All of these things they need to be thinking about now.”

Olson said chicken farmers will be keeping a close eye on their flocks, which took months to restock. They will be watching for decreased water consumption, lethargy, and heightened death rates.

The last case of bird flu in Iowa was confirmed in June, and the final quarantine order was lifted in December.

As migratory birds return, Iowa bird farmers will have a heightened awareness, hoping to avoid a repeat of the devastation of 2015.

Olson, however, believes farmers have been on high alert ever since last year’s outbreak.

“Since last year, I don’t think that our producers’ antennae on this issue have waned at all,” Olson said. “So while I agree that a year ago we started to see the first few cases of bird flu in the upper Midwest, since that outbreak last year our growers have really been on a heightened state of alert.”

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