Minnesota’s birds, poultry industry at risk as avian flu closes in

It may be a matter of when, not if, the latest wave of avian influenza infections Minnesota flocks.

The bigger question is whether it will be as devastating as the 2015 outbreak that caused the death of 9 million birds in Minnesota, the nation’s leading turkey producer.

“There’s really no way we can control the wild birds carrying the virus and where they might land,” said Abby Neu Schuft, a poultry expert with University of Minnesota Extension. “What we can control is our actions and our biosecurity.”

Cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza have infected commercial and backyard flocks in Iowa and South Dakota in recent weeks after first turning up in an Indiana turkey operation early in February.

The virus spreads easily among different bird species — chickens, turkeys, geese and bald eagles have all tested positive for the strain causing outbreaks — but it has not been detected in humans in the US

“The risk to the general public’s health from current H5N1 bird flu viruses is low, however some people may have job-related or recreational exposures to birds that put them at higher risk of infection,” the CDC reported this week.

Still, Schuft said uncontrolled outbreaks could have far-reaching consequences. Biosecurity measures — like identifying lines of separation between clean and dirty areas and consistently using sterilizing procedures for people and equipment — can keep the virus from jumping from barn to barn and farm to farm.

“It’s not just our commercial turkey industry,” she said, as Minnesota is home to millions of chickens and is a leading pheasant producer. “The risk is real for everybody.”

Nationally, 50 million birds were killed by bird flu or destroyed to prevent its spread in 2015. That pain is still fresh enough to keep poultry producers on their toes.

“During the last spread we had let our guard down,” said John Brunnquell, owner of national free-range egg producer Egg Innovations. “Our reaction time is infinitely quicker, and we do not see the explosion and impact we had in 2015.”

Turkey operations were especially hard-hit in 2015, even following what were then best practices in preventing the spread. Minor bird flu outbreaks in 2016 and 2020 were quickly contained, giving industry leaders optimism for this year’s multistate spread.

“The industry, nationwide and in Minnesota, is better prepared than it has been at any point in time,” said National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger.

New technology in barns allows growers to monitor if water consumption drops — a telltale sign of infection. Communication between farmers and agencies has also sped up, Brandenberger said, which speeds up response times for deploying depopulation equipment.

“A tremendous amount was learned in 2015,” he said. “It’s easier to recognize the virus in the barn before you have significant mortality.”

The proliferation of urban chickens as a pandemic hobby complicates things this time. Schuft said it is paramount backyard flocks are monitored and that owners reach out to a veterinarian or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health at the first sign of illness.

“I’m optimistic that it can be minimized, and we can do that with good biosecurity, which has been impressed upon all poultry employees,” she said. “Small-flock owners should also be more aware of what highly pathogenic avian influenza is and report it more. … When we know more, we can do more.”

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