All nine of the turkey farms in South Dakota that were affected by the deadly bird flu virus during the spring have restocked and are raising birds again, though the lone chicken farm has yet to recover.
Officials say South Dakota is recovering faster than most other states that were hit by the H5N2 virus, which wiped out 48 million turkeys and chickens in the U.S. and 1.7 million in the state. Jeff Sveen, the board chairman for Dakota Provisions, a farmer-owned plant that processes turkeys, attributes the speedy recovery to good cooperation with producers and Dustin Oedekoven, the state veterinarian.
"We're ahead of anybody else in the country," Sveen said, noting that the final farm was repopulated last week. "We're a small state, we get things done."
Oedekoven, on the other hand, gives credit to the turkey growers, who are all Hutterites, a German-speaking people who primarily work in agriculture. Plus, he said, the majority of South Dakota's farms are independently, not corporately, owned.
"They're very hard working. They definitely have an ownership in what they're doing and they have an interest in getting it done as well as possible and as quickly as possible so that they can get back in production," he said.
The bird flu, which first showed up in South Dakota at the beginning of April, took a financial toll on the state's farmers and processing plants.
Dakota Provisions lost 10 percent of its annual production, but since it all came at once, Sveen said, it's closer to about a quarter of what they would typically produce during a four-month period. Employees have been working fewer hours, but no one lost their job and Sveen's hope is that the plant will be back to regular operations by the last week of October, when the new birds will start to be processed.
South Dakota's only affected chicken farm, a 1.3 million-bird egg-laying operation, is still recovering, according to Jason Ramsdell, the vice president of the Flandreau-based Dakota Layers.
Egg-laying operations take much longer to clean, due to the size and complexity of the barns, Ramsdell said. Once they're cleared by animal health officials, they'll begin disinfecting all nine barns, heating them up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off any trace of the virus.
They're aiming to get their first flock back in the barns in December, but likely won't fully restocked until about Christmas 2016 due to a limited supply of baby chicks and only a set amount of space in which to grow them, Ramsdell said.
Despite having to euthanize their entire flock, Dakota Layers hasn't laid off any employees — in fact, they're working more to clean the barns as fast as possible.
"We're trying to do all we can to keep everybody employed," Ramsdell said, noting other employees will also work on building a new barn for young birds.
All bird-farming operations are ramping up their biosecurity measures should the virus return this fall.
Dakota Provisions' producers are implementing stricter protections, such as venting systems designed to prevent wild bird droppings from entering and wire screens to prevent wild birds from flying through.
"We're just taking all kinds of extra precautions to try to prevent it from being reintroduced," he said. "And hopefully we won't have any of this again — we just don't know."