Poultry Producers Prepare For Potential Fall Flu Outbreak

Minnesotans do not appear to be letting bird flu concerns keep them from eating at the state turkey growers stand at the 2015 Minnesota State Fair. Experts say poultry cooked properly is safe for human consumption, just like when bird flu was not a problem. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Minnesotans do not appear to be letting bird flu concerns keep them from eating at the state turkey growers stand at the 2015 Minnesota State Fair. Experts say poultry cooked properly is safe for human consumption, just like when bird flu was not a problem. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Temperatures have dipped into the 40s and even the 30s, in northern Minnesota.

Ducks and geese are beginning their annual migration south.

Leaves are just beginning to turn.

“We are there,” Badger, Minn., farmer John Burkel said about fall.

For many like Burkel, it is not about the pretty autumn colors or the arrival of football. This year, at least, his thoughts turn to whether he has increased biosecurity on his farm enough to avoid another avian flu outbreak like the one that resulted in 9 million turkey and chicken deaths on 108 Minnesota farms from March to June. The state was the hardest hit in the country, with 48 million bird deaths nationwide.

Since migrating ducks are and geese are thought to spread the flu virus, the migration’s debut marks the start of a worrisome time for turkey and chicken producers.

Burkel lost 26,000 turkeys to the flu outbreak that was diagnosed on his farm April 14. Some died of the disease, but most were euthanized to prevent the virus’ spread.

State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann said that he is glad experts were right that hot, dry weather stopped the virus this summer (the last bird flu confirmation was June 5), which “allowed us to catch up on the farms that we had quarantined.”

“There is a frantic search for a vaccine or how to prevent it,” Gov. Mark Dayton said during a Minnesota State Fair visit.

That work likely will reduce the number of affected flocks, Hartmann said.

However, he warned, “this virus is more unpredictable than other viruses we have seen.”

Hartmann remained optimistic: “We are more prepared that we were last spring. We know a lot more about this virus.”

Steve Olson, leader of Minnesota poultry groups, said many of his members feel that any fall flu outbreak will be milder than the one in the spring, and perhaps lessor than an outbreak in the spring of 2016. However, poultry producers said that is more of a feel than something backed by science.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is stockpiling vaccines that have shown to be effective in protecting chickens from the deadly flu, although tests on turkeys continue. While the federal government is collecting the vaccine, the poultry industry likely will pay for vaccinations, Olson said.

“It is very difficult because internationally countries have in the past said if you vaccinate them, no poultry or poultry products can come into their country,” Hartmann said. “And we are one of the countries that said that.”

Minnesota is the country’s largest turkey-producing state, but most are sold in the United States.

Most poultry farmers spent the summer increasing their efforts to stop the virus before it gets to their birds, protection known as biosecurity.

Burkel and other producers have banned clothes and boots worn elsewhere to also go into poultry facilities, and they forbid clothes being worn in two different barns. He, and many others, set up wash facilities to clean feed trucks and other vehicles before they enter farms. Farmers also are looking into air filters that could keep out air-borne viruses.

“We feel we are ready,” Hartmann said. “We have made sure we have adequate equipment and trained personnel. Having lived through it once, I believe we are well prepared.”

The virus is thought to be carried by ducks and geese, with it deposited on farms in their droppings or on their feathers. It still is not known just how it gets to the poultry, but it could be by people tracking it into barns or through the wind. The bottom line for farmers is to not let anything that could be carrying a virus near the birds.

The poultry industry is conducting biosecurity audits to make sure farms are as safe as possible, although not everything can be done right away.

“They are focusing on the highest risks factors,” Hartmann said. “It will take some time before people have filled in all the gaps.”

If the virus does reach a flock, Minnesota and federal officials say they have honed their operations enough to quickly begin the euthanizing process, which they call “depopulating” the birds, to stop the spread of the disease and to get farmers back into production quickly. After birds are killed, it takes months of cleaning and testing to put new birds in the barns.

Most turkeys are raised in west-central to southern Minnesota, although farms can be found in much of the state, such as Burkel’s northwestern Minnesota flock.

In 2013, Burkel gained notoriety when he accompanied two of his turkeys, Popcorn and Carmel, to the White House to see them earn a President Barack Obama pardon just before Thanksgiving.

He said that he is happy with state and federal response to the flu outbreak. And, like Hartmann and Olson, he said he is confident officials and farmers alike know more about what to expect.

“We spent a lot of time with what-ifs … but I don’t think anybody realized that once it happened how quickly it spread,” Burkel said of the time before the spring outbreak. “Given what we now know, after the fact, we will be much more prepared moving forward.”