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Avian flu from wild birds may pose more risk to free-range chickens
Farmers Hen House, an organic egg company in Kalona, is working with small producers to protect their flocks
Free-range chickens may have greater exposure to bird flu than their caged compatriots because the free flocks have access to outdoor areas that could be visited by wild birds believed to be a primary carrier of the disease this year.
Farmers Hen House, which buys eggs from 50 producers — many Amish or Mennonite farmers who raise organic, free-range chickens — is prepared to scale up protective measures if the virus is detected in Eastern Iowa.
“There are many chances for birds to be in direct contact with wild birds, which is definitely a concern for us right now with the wild bird migration,“ said Laura Jacobs, compliance manager and director of animal operations for the Kalona egg company.
“We’re working with our local vet and with some well-regarded vets in the industry to come up with a plan for how to balance outside access and keeping our birds safe.”
Iowa is the No. 1 egg producing state, with more than 58 million laying hens producing more than 17.1 billion eggs in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Free-range eggs — a smaller but growing sector — must come from hens who have unlimited access to food and water, the ability to roam within a barn and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle, the USDA reported.
That outdoor access may add to the exposure free-range chickens have to the H5N1 bird flu viruses detected in commercial and backyard poultry flocks in 13 states, including Iowa.
The risk of the public getting bird flu from animals is very low, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March. National and state agriculture and public health agencies are watching the viruses closely to make sure they don’t change and become more transmissible to humans.
You can’t catch bird flu from eating cooked poultry or eggs, even if there is an outbreak in the area, the CDC reported. The few people who get sick from the virus usually are exposed to droppings from infected birds.
Several new outbreaks of bird flu were confirmed last week in Iowa, bringing the total number of cases in commercial and backyard flocks to 12 as of Friday afternoon. So far, none of the cases have been in Eastern Iowa.
Nearly 13 million birds have been euthanized this year in Iowa because of potential exposure to infected birds. Some of these farms lost 50,000 birds.
The small producers that supply eggs to the Farmers Hen House have only a fraction of those laying hens, but if bird flu was found there it might be even more devastating, Jacobs said.
“The economic impact on a smaller farm might actually be more than a larger farm, especially farms our size where somebody’s entire livelihood might be tied to that barn,” she said. “A smaller number of birds for us as a processor may not affect our business as much, but for a farm to get hit, it’s a significant economic impact either way.”
Most, if not all, Amish producers would not have insurance to kick in if they had to euthanize their flock, she said.
“In our area, there’s generally a support system through Amish churches,” she said. “The churches will rally around somebody with financial needs and make sure they don’t go under.”
So far, the Farmers Hen House has prohibited visitors to its facilities and advised producers to do the same at their barns. When egg company employees pick up eggs at the barns, they cover their shoes or bathe the soles of their shoes in disinfectant to make sure they aren’t bringing in any viruses, Jacobs said.
Farmers Hen House has asked producers to watch their flocks for signs of illness, which might be hens not eating, drinking or moving around normally.
“If you start seeing birds acting ill, call your vet and have them do a blood test,” she said. “If it comes back positive, we approach it then with mandatory reporting.”
The company wants to preserve hens’ access to outdoor yards, where they can run freely and peck around for bugs.
“We obviously still want our birds to go outside. It’s important for the birds’ welfare; it’s important to our brand,” she said.
Farmers Hen House sends up to one-third of its free-range and pasture-raised eggs to California, where a new law requires chickens have more space to move around.
If the cases of bird flu move further east and closer to Kalona, Farmers Hen House may increase precautions, such as putting nets over bushes and trees in hen yards to discourage wild birds from landing there. Working with veterinarians, the company may also limit the hens’ outside time, Jacobs said.
“Right now we’re kind of watching and making decisions based on proximity of cases to where we are here,” she said.
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