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HPAI: What can we do?

By Staff | May 28, 2015

-Farm News photo by Michele Linck SEN. JONI ERNST, R-Iowa is flanked by Bill Northey, Iowa secretary of agriculture, during a public meeting with poultry producers on May 22 at Dordt College in Sioux Center. They were joined by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.


SIOUX CENTER – Sioux County egg and chicken producers are hoping their May 23 meeting with Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa; and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey will get the attention of members of Congress and others who can help them financially survive the avian influenza epidemic that has hit Sioux County and farms in neighboring counties.

Avian flu is short for highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI.

About 60 people involved in egg and poultry production attended an afternoon public meeting, hoping to learn what aid is available to bury or otherwise deal with the millions of dead egg layers, broiler chickens and turkeys.

Most of the birds had to be euthanized after some of their housemates died of HPAI.

Ernst said she flew in from Washington following a 2 a.m. vote in the Senate that day, and that she and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and are compiling this information and getting it back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I realize this has been difficult and hard on you,” she said. “And employees are starting to feel the impact: feed producers, truck drivers – everyone who produces our eggs is impacted.”

Although Ernst led the discussion, she, King and Northey did a lot of listening.

Each responded to questions, some about what programs or funds might be available to help them dispose of their dead poultry.

Others needed to know what financial or other help might be available to help them handle the depopulation expenses, financial losses and required downtime.

After that, more money is needed to repopulate buildings.

If any fowl in a poultry operation contracts HPAI, U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines requires that all chickens or turkeys exposed must be euthanized, that the poultry houses be depopulated.

“You could never have expected you would be impacted by this,” Northey told the audience. “It hits very close to home, and not just financially. We’ll figure out how to get this thing done.”

Northey reminded the audience of about 60 people, that while the disease was brought by birds, it can be spread by people going from place to place, bringing the virus in through the dust on their shoes, or by driving their vehicle from place to place, spreading the virus in dirt on the tires.

“Bio-security matters,” Northey said. “We have producers and others trying to come up with solutions.”

Method may work

The USDA requires at least three months vacancy and the implementation of strict cleanliness requirements before a building can house poultry again.

King said he seeks out “people who know more than I do,” adding that one of those he talked to had an idea that might actually work to hasten the restart of depopulated operations.

The idea is based on the idea that the HPAI virus is fragile and easily killed.

The plan is to shrink-wrap each chicken house. Then turn heaters inside each sealed building to 130 degrees – a bit hotter than the virus’s top survivable temperature – and leave them on for five hours.

Ernst, King and Northey indicated some funding may be available to help producers, although nothing is yet certain. King said that no program is set up specifically for HPAI, and Congress has yet to take up the issue and decide what funds qualify to be spent on recovering from HPAI.

Why us?

The virus is carried in wild birds’ feces and is even thought to be spread – perhaps as far as 30 miles – by the wind alone.

Several producers stood to offer their thoughts on the issues that lie ahead. They asked what the processes for recovery will be and whether funding is available to see them through to that period.

However, the available aid and timetables are still uncertain.

Several producers said they don’t put much faith in anyone being able to meet all the government requirements related to depopulation and cleaning within the mandatory 90-day total production shutdown mandate.

Some producers said that, more than 20 days into it, they have not yet even been able to dispose of their share of millions of dead chickens in Sioux County alone. Many have been dumped into trenches dug in the farm’s fields, but are as yet uncovered.

“We definitely have depopulated. About one million a day,” Northey told his audience, noting that the processed egg producers have really been hit hard.

“They’re still in boxes,” he said of some of the disease-killed dead and euthanized chicken.

“They need to be hauled out in a way that reduces the chance of spreading it.

“Some people are going to engineer the eggs out of some recipes,” Northey predicted. “Also, we’re going to have to find ways to get people back to using eggs, to get that demand back.”

On the positive side, Northey finished his remarks by noting that the spread of the HPAI virus is beginning to tail off.

Plenty of concern

A number of producers at the meeting expressed concern about their long-term future.

King said he thought that three or four existing programs could be applied to the disaster, one of which he thinks would likely cover depopulation and clean-up.

Sioux County farmer Howard Vlieger, a non-GMO seed advocate, reported that when a neighboring farm depopulated its chickens to compost, “the flies were so thick you couldn’t breathe in through your mouth.”

Vlieger said, however, that pullets raised on non-GMO corn at another farm were likely exposed to the disease from other farms in the vicinity, but didn’t get sick. And he said that broilers there had tested positive for the disease, but weren’t dying.

Another producer said he knew of a turkey facility that composted its birds within its site, because it couldn’t incinerate or haul the dead birds to the landfill.

“We believe (either one) can be done safely,” Northey said.

Northey expressed frustration, saying, “We’ve been three days away (from the OK to haul the dead birds to a landfill) for the last three weeks.

“If we’re gonna go through this again in the fall, we need to know which landfills, does burying work, will other farms allow burial on their farm?”

The HPAI virus is not a hardy one, Northey said, listing potential solutions and their shortcomings. These include:

  • Bleach can kill the viruses, but what if you miss a corner?
  • They can’t live in a hot, dry environment. Testing is difficult – what if a germ is hiding?

“This (virus) is different from others in the world,” Northey said, “so we’ve got to figure it out. We just took 25 million birds out.

“Every week is a week nobody makes any money.”

King called for an epidemiological study to track patterns.

One producer said, “We’re basically flying by the seat of our pants. There’s a lot of fear of how this is going to come out.”

Ernst said she talked to a turkey producer who was told that she could do her own cleaning work rather than hire a contractor.

Ernst said the producer would probably do a better job on her own farm than a contractor.

“The trouble is, these birds travel continents,” Northey said.

He said a different strain is seen in Mexico, which has developed a vaccine; but added that “it isn’t very good.

“This may come back this fall,” he said of Iowa’s epidemic.

Mike Doorenbos, who, with his daughter and son-in-law, has an egg operation near Boyden, said that a week ago, he put mats out for people to use to clean their footwear. And, he sanitizes all the feed and garbage trucks that come into his operation.

“It’s a bad deal,” he said of disease. “I’ve got a good banker. He’s told me he should’ve gotten in the egg business.

“It really is a good business to be in,” he said. “We’re actually collecting eggs every day. The shells are getting thin, though.”

Immediately following the public session King, Ernst and Northey met privately with producers.

By the numbers

According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship on Tuesday morning the presence of avian flu in Iowa has tallied:

  • 64 cases in 15 counties
  • 5 cases in backyard flocks, with 774 chickens and 75 ducks affected.
  • 21.45 million lay hens affected.
  • 1.05 million turkeys affected.
  • 3 million pullets affected.
  • 18,791 birds in a hatchery affected.

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