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Officials, Farmers Preparing for Fall Bird Flu Outbreak Amid Ongoing Mystery

Farmers and agriculture officials are gearing up for another round of bird flu this fall, an outbreak they fear could be worse than the devastating spring crisis that hit turkeys and egg-laying hens in the Midwest, wiped out entire farms and sent egg prices sky-high.

The potential target of the highly pathogenic avian flu this fall could be broilers, or meat chickens, as the outbreaks have been triggered and carried by wild birds, which will be flying south in great numbers this fall through several U.S. flyways.

The farmers who got hit this spring, which lead to the destruction of more than 48 million birds, know how life-changing a flu outbreak can be.

The Moline family of Manson, Iowa, has been raising turkeys for 91 years. But for most of this summer, their barns were empty and quiet, with no birds and no fans running to keep the barns ventilated. Instead, all hands were on deck with the recovery from the bird flu outbreak.

In May, Brad Moline found 90 dead birds. Lab tests confirmed they had flu, which meant that surviving birds had to be killed.

Before they could contain it, the flu spread to all three of the farm’s locations. That’s when Moline, his brother and father, their hired farmworkers and even their kids got busy disinfecting the barns and disposing of the dead birds. Then, they waited for environmental tests to come back free of the flu virus. 

On July 31, the Molines became the first infected operation to put baby turkeys back in the barns.

“I hadn’t been that excited [to get baby turkeys] since I was a kid,” Brad Moline said. “So we’re getting back to, for lack of better words, back to normal.”

Moline’s new normal includes fielding calls from other producers, some in the heart of southeastern chicken country where most of the country’s meat chickens are raised. Those farmers want to know what they should do to prepare. His advice to them?

“Look at biosecurity issues,” he said, “but also have a plan, whether it’s written in your office or on the side of a barn wall, have a plan of what you’re going to do in case this hits you. Because it can. It’s just that simple.”

Fortunately, Moline added, as devastating as it is, the disease is relatively easy to get rid of. That was a critical factor in his decision, after consulting with his father and brother, to clean up and repopulate. But they know they could get hit again, so they’re ramping up their biosecurity, too.

Biosecurity refers to a collection of measures meant to limit the exposure of the animals to outside harm. It can include disinfecting boots and tires that enter or leave the farm and requiring overalls and disposable booties—or showers—for anyone entering a barn. During the crisis, workers even wore Tyvek protective suits with respirators.

Federal officials say the virus came from wild birds, but blame lapses in biosecurity, among other factors, for it spreading so quickly. Some farmers even blame the wind.

That said, nobody really knows exactly how it happened. Before a Congressional panel in July, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged mistakes were made.  

“We understand there are issues involving biosecurity, there are issues involving depopulation, there are issues involving disposal, there are issues involving indemnification, and the time for repopulation,” Vilsack said.

Licking some wounds after criticisms of their response to the spring outbreak, USDA officials say they have a plan for this fall that could handle a worst-case scenario of twice as many infections.

The department also hopes to stockpile vaccine, which won’t protect birds from infection, but will reduce the amount of virus generated during an outbreak. That could make clean up faster and help save birds. But there is still much anxiety about the cooling temperatures, as bird flu can’t survive the summer’s heat but could easily spread as the fall and winter chill sets in.

Meanwhile, throughout the poultry industry, people are trying to make sense of bird flu.

Cindy McCollough, who operates Blue Stem Organic Feed Mill in Webster City, Iowa, had a different experience than the larger feed mills and others affected by the state’s bird flu outbreak.

Unlike the large feed mills, McCollough’s customers typically drive to her place and then go back to their own farms, so there aren’t many trucks that visit a variety of poultry farms and the mill. That limited exposure during the outbreak. Still, McCollough watched carefully as the quarantine rings around infected sites came to within seven miles of the mill.

“If we were within six, we would have had to have gone through the quarantine aspects,” she said, “making sure that every truck is sprayed.”

She says biosecurity requirements would have forced her to limit access to the mill and she’s thankful it didn’t come to that. Across Iowa, 77 quarantines were established, with the last of those only lifted in late August. McCollough’s customers raise organic birds that can’t live exclusively indoors, as most commercial poultry does. She’s left with questions about the virus.

“How it's spreading and why it was continuing to spread, because all of our birds are required to be outside,” she said, “so the migratory bird aspect was a big question mark for us because we would have had the highest exposure.”

Avian influenza naturally occurs in wild ducks and geese, who often are unaffected by it. But that fact doesn’t explain how the virus got from them to the commercial flocks. Iowa State University wildlife ecologist Jim Adelman will soon be looking at sparrows and other small birds to see whether they can move the virus from migrating waterfowl to commercial poultry.

“We are going to go out and sample a bunch of these types of wild birds as well as some mammals and insects,” he said, to “look at these sort of non-traditional vectors that might play a role.”

Adelman emphasizes that these are unlikely transmission routes. But in the absence of one solid explanation, many ideas are being pursued. 

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames