The avian flu epidemic that wiped out millions of birds in 2015 "was a new experience for all of us," according to Minnesota turkey producer Rick Klaphake. He raises the birds in Stearns County, Minn., which is the third-largest turkey-producing county in the nation. A year later, in 2016, memories of the devastating outbreak remain fresh in his mind.
“The first farm that got hit in the Melrose/Sauk Centre area was on March 26 and was just about 3 miles east of our farm,” Klaphake recalls.
The virus spread rapidly, and 9 million birds in Minnesota alone were wiped out. By the time the outbreak ended, 50 million turkeys and chickens had been culled.
Less than a year later, in 2016, the fatal disease hit again, but this time, it happened in Indiana. As a result, more than 414,000 birds were lost in January, when a new highly pathogenic form of avian flu swept through DuBois County, Ind. “Indiana is the fourth-highest producing turkey state in the nation, and that county, DuBois county, is our number-one turkey producer,” explaines Denise Derrer, public information specialist for Indiana’s Board of Animal Health (BOAH).
“We had 10 infected sites," says Derrer, who adds that additional farms were considered at risk due to their proximity to the infected farms. "Even though (those birds) weren't infected, they all had to be depopulated."
BOAH says the case involved the H7 strain, which is different from the H5N2 strain that hit Minnesota and Iowa in 2015. The new strain hit fast, leaving the industry questioning how it showed up in commercial poultry for the first time ever.
“We may never know,” says Derrer. “It's easy to blame wildlife, but we haven't had any positive wildlife come up in the surveillance sampling that we've done in the area."
Derrer says she knows the Indiana response wasn't perfect, but in 5 days, all 414,000 birds were depopulated, and within 38 days, the 10-kilometer control area was lifted. “The main thing we can really sum up the two things that made the difference was quick action and partnerships," she says. "The producer really, really took quick action."
She says it was that quick action that allowed the Board of Animal Health to start emergency response.
“We had a presumptive positive that went through our state lab,” says Derrer. “The sample was on the way to USDA lab, which makes it official But we were already getting testing done in all the commercial sites in that area.”
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Derrer says Indiana put the most resources towards controlling the spread to operations not yet infected. “Because of international trade rules, we drew a 10-kilometer circle, and everything in that circle basically went on lockdown until it tested negative,” she says. “It has to have a negative test before any of the products or birds can move in or out.”
She says having poultry operations registered helped. While Indiana does not require registration for poultry operations, having that information helps reduce the state's response time in such a crisis.
“That first day, when we had that first presumptive positive (test), we looked in our database and drew a map," Derrer says. "We knew we had 65 other sites that we had to contact that day and start testing” for the virus.
Indiana poultry producers took notice, commending all agencies for minimizing the possible damage. “I think biosecurity was a huge part of why (the 2016 Indiana outbreak) was limited to a handful of turkey flocks and didn't spread to 4 million laying hens within that same county,” says Bob Krouse, of Midwest Poultry.
Krouse says since the large outbreak in Iowa and Minnesota, they ramped up biosecurity efforts on their own farm. “As a company, we've spent well over $5 million in the last year on new equipment, on training, on uniforms, on changing rooms, on all the different things that go into our biosecurity plan,” says Krouse.
That new level of biosecurity has become standard protocol on his operation. “It's not something we raise up and down based on a perceived threat level, because you just can't know when avian influenza might strike," he says.
What is involved in this new approach? “What we did was stop all traffic,” Klapahke says about his biosecurity efforts. “We made a list of everyone who comes into our office, including the milkman, the UPS guy--everybody." All vehicles entering the farms also are sanitized with a high-pressure underbody wash approved by USDA and FDA.
Even with all these new standards, producers know they aren't immune to future outbreaks, and for farmers in Minnesota, recovery efforts are still underway. “Some guys still aren't running 100 percent today yet,” says Klapahke.
He's had to make some adjustments himself. Even though his birds did not contract the virus in 2015, Klapahke says he still lost 4 million pounds of production by either selling younger birds or temporarily shutting down farms.
This year looks more promising, though. Thanks to higher prices for poultry, the profit outlook for 2016 is improving.