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400,000 turkeys killed because of bird flu this month in Iowa’s largest turkey processing region

Amy Mayer
IPR file
From Dec. 2-12, more than 400,000 commercial turkeys in a cluster of northwest Iowa counties died from bird flu or were killed to contain the spread. The turkeys are in the largest turkey processing region of the state.

Bird flu has hit several commercial turkey flocks in northwest Iowa this month, leading to the destruction of more than 400,000 turkeys to control the spread of the virus in an area of the state where there is a major turkey processing plant.

State and federal agriculture departments confirmed cases of bird flu in commercial turkey flocks in Buena Vista, Sac, Cherokee and Ida counties throughout the first half of December, with the most recent confirmed case on Dec. 12 in an Ida County commercial operation of 90,000 turkeys.

A commercial operation in Cherokee had 100,000 turkeys that had to be culled because of bird flu. The other flocks had 40,000 or 50,000 turkeys. Some 420,000 turkeys in northwest Iowa this month have died from the virus or been killed to contain it. The turkey carcasses were composted, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship said.

No other bird flu cases have been detected so far this month in Iowa.

Northwest Iowa is the largest turkey-producing part of the state. The cluster of cases in northwest Iowa commercial turkey flocks this month have perplexed the industry, particularly as this year’s bird flu outbreak has not been blamed on farm-to-farm spread, but rather on wild birds that can carry and shed the virus.

“Iowa’s turkey farmers really work diligently to protect their turkey flocks from wild birds,” said Iowa Turkey Federation Executive Director Gretta Irwin, adding that the ramp-up in cases in northwest Iowa turkey flocks this month “really has us a little bit puzzled of what is happening with the birds that are migrating and the virus that they’re currently carrying.”

Tyson Foods owns a turkey processing plant in the northwest Iowa town of Storm Lake. It’s one of two turkey processing facilities in Iowa that together process more than 15 million turkeys annually into deli meats and other turkey products, according to the Iowa Turkey Federation.

Tyson Foods didn’t respond to questions about how the loss of the 420,000 turkeys is impacting processing there. But Iowa State University agriculture economist Chad Hart said the loss of those turkeys is a “good-sized hit.” It means fewer turkeys are moving through the plant, which creates a processing hole.

“We're going to see a cut in numbers here, not only here initially, but it'll take a while for those numbers to build back up,” Hart said.

Turkeys take around 28 weeks to reach market weight, before they’re processed. Hart said some turkeys would have been ready for processing tomorrow, while others were weeks away. “The problem is with these farms, we’re taking out [turkeys] all across the board,” Hart said.

Irwin said the local impact to processing in northwest Iowa is large. But she said she doesn’t anticipate it affecting the national volume and availability of turkey products.

“This is regional and there's other places across the United States that we can purchase turkey [from] to make sure that we meet those demands,” Irwin said.

In November, despite the loss of 8 million turkeys to bird flu nationwide, turkey products remained available for Thanksgiving.

The first detection of bird flu in an Iowa commercial or backyard flock this year was found in March. As cases ramped up in Iowa and across the country, state and federal agriculture officials blamed the outbreak on wild birds, particularly waterfowl, that were on their migration north and can shed the virus through their saliva or feces. Iowa has had more commercial and backyard birds impacted by bird flu than any other state this year, with more than 15 million killed.

New cases of bird flu have emerged this fall, tied with the fall migration of wild birds.

Adam Janke, an Iowa State University wildlife extension specialist, said most of the wild birds that migrate through Iowa have already left the state. But some ducks and geese (such as mallards and lesser snow geese) do linger in Iowa for the winter, depending on the conditions.

“If they can find open water that’s maintained by flowing rivers and streams, open water maintained by fountains and cities, they’ll winter there as long as they can access food and the crop fields,” Janke said.

A lot of birds fly through northwest Iowa on their migration, Janke said, because it’s where a major flyway is. But they’re not necessarily stopping in northwest Iowa because there aren’t a lot of wetlands there.

“These are birds that land on the water,” Janke said. “We know the virus is in wild birds. We know the virus is finding its way into barns. But we do not know that bridge.”

Bird flu has been confirmed in mammals, such as foxes and skunks. With the cluster of bird flu cases in northwest Iowa and no idea why it’s been happening, the Iowa Turkey Federation and the veterinarians it works with have continued to educate producers on biosecurity, the things they can do to keep germs, viruses and diseases off of their farms. Irwin said one of the protocols that’s been emphasized has been rodent control — making sure there aren’t any mice or rats in or near turkey farms.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.