Bird Watching

With bird flu detected in Indiana, Iowa poultry farmers on high alert

As bird flu creeps closer to Iowa, poultry producers are closely monitoring flocks for signs of the highly contagious disease that swept through the state’s commercial and backyard flocks nearly seven years, killing tens of millions of birds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday that highly pathogenic avian influenza was discovered in a commercial turkey operation in southern Indiana. The state animal health board said 29,000 birds were being destroyed to prevent the disease from spreading.

The Dubois County operation is under quarantine, the agency said.

Mike Naig, Iowa’s agriculture secretary, said he doesn’t believe it’s inevitable that herds in Iowa will be infected.

In 2014 and 2015, Midwestern states struggled to contain a virulent strain of bird flu that doomed millions of turkeys and chickens.  Producers are once again monitoring bird flu after the disease was discovered in an Indiana turkey facility.

“But the threat is real…and high, when you have an active case in the country,” Naig said. “That’s why we talk about biosecurity…and what producers can do to keep it out of their farms.”

Although bird flu is deadly to birds, the federal Department of Agriculture has said it presents no immediate public health concern. No human cases of these avian influenza viruses have been detected in the United States.

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Tests last month revealed bird flu in wild bird populations in North and South Carolina. The Department of Agriculture said it is not unusual for wild birds to be infected with bird flu and show no signs of illness. They can then carry the disease to new areas as they migrate.

Iowa’s poultry industry is massive. The state is the national leader in egg production with 55 million hens lay around 16 billion eggs per year. This too ranks seventh nationally for turkey production, raising 12 million birds a year.

In 2015, the disease killed 32.7 million laying hens, turkeys and other birds in Iowa — about two-thirds of the 50.5 million who died nationwide, according to the agriculture department..

Commercial and backyard poultry producers are closely monitoring flocks in an effort to stave off a bird flu that has been detected in Indiana.

Naig said Iowa has no known connection to the infected flock and is closely monitoring imports of poultry and poultry products from Indiana.

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“Farmers should monitor their animals closely and contact their veterinarian and state or federal animal health officials immediately if a sick animal or clinical signs consistent” with avian influenza are observed, Naig said in a statement.

He told the Des Moines Register that growers, as well as state and federal government officials, learned lessons from the outbreak that began in April 2015 in Iowa. One of the results has been better control of the movement of people, products and vehicles inside and outside the facilities to prevent the spread of disease.

“I think we are better prepared today than we were,” Naig said. “But we are not happy with where we are.”

Iowa poultry producers say they are tightening biosecurity measures.

“Iowa poultry producers are always committed to the health and well-being of their flocks, but this news certainly elevates their efforts to an even higher level,” said Kevin Stiles, Iowa Executive Director. Poultry Association, in a statement.

Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Association, said growers have improved their response to the disease over the past two decades. Those efforts include testing every flock of turkeys in Iowa for bird flu before sending the birds to meat packers.

The disease, which can kill birds within hours, “is devastating to farmers” who are affected, Irwin said in a statement.

Indiana’s Animal Health Board said the state’s last major outbreak was in 2016, when birds at 11 poultry farms tested positive and 400,000 animals died or were destroyed.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, environment and energy for the Register. Contact her at [email protected] or 515-284-8457.