Local poultry producers on guard after bird flu outbreak in Midwest

ADDISON COUNTY — The outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the Midwestern United States could have severe consequences for Vermont’s poultry producers. Although HPAI is not directly affecting Vermont at this time, the disease may begin to affect New England as early as fall of 2015, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
This is of particular interest in Addison County, home to two of the largest poultry producers and one of the largest egg producers in the state, not to mention numerous backyard flocks.
HPAI, more commonly known as bird flu, is a highly contagious virus that is often fatal to chickens and turkeys. According to the USDA, this particular outbreak of the HPAI H5N8 virus originated in Asia before reaching the United States in December of 2014. Since then, the USDA has confirmed the presence of HPAI in the Pacific, Central and Mississippi flyways. Nearly 37 million birds in the United States have been affected — most in three Midwestern states; and several million have been killed to prevent further spread.
Shelley Mehlenbacher, Vermont’s assistant state veterinarian, said the arrival of HPAI could be very detrimental to the poultry population of Vermont.
“Turkeys are particularly susceptible to the disease. Once they catch it, they tend to die fairly quickly,” she said.
For poultry producers like Paul Stone of Stonewood Farm in Orwell the potential for infection could have immense economic consequences.
“Our entire income is dependent on turkeys,” Stone explained. “Most of that comes from the fresh Thanksgiving market. If our turkeys get infected, we’ll lose that entire market and have to wait a whole year to continue growing them.”
The Orwell farm, which produces approximately 30,000 turkeys per year, is not alone in its concern. Maple Meadow Farm in Salisbury is similarly anticipating the economic hardship that may arise should HPAI affect its flock.
“It would be completely devastating to us,” said farm operator Jackie Devoid. “We would have to quarantine our farm and all of the poultry around us.”
According to the USDA, flocks that are found to contain the presence of HPAI will be quarantined and humanely euthanized to limit the spread of the disease.
“If we have to repopulate our entire flock, it will take us a minimum of one hundred days to get back up into production,” said Devoid, whose farm is home to 60,000 hens and produces approximately 50,000 eggs per day.
It is not just commercial producers of poultry who should be aware of HPAI, however. According to the USDA, wild birds may contain the virus without appearing sick.
Addison County is also the home to many smaller producers as well as people who keep a dozen or two chickens.
Bay Hammond and her family keep about 800 laying chickens and fewer than 1,000 meat birds in their Doolittle Farm in Shoreham. Hammond said they are keeping tabs on the bird flu situation but says there is not a lot they can do at this point.
“We’re pasture-based, so we could move them all inside,” Hammond said.
There is a cost to doing that, plus there are cases where inside flocks have been infected, she pointed out.
“(Infected wild birds) can get inside, too,” she said.
“We’re just keeping our flock healthy and keeping an eye on them,” Hammond said. “If there was an outbreak in New York state, then I might get worried.”
Beth Smith, who keeps a dozen layers at her home in rural Middlebury, is taking a similar wait and see approach.
“If it happens it happens,” she said. “I’m not making any preparations. I only have a backyard flock so it wouldn’t be a financial burden.”
For big producers it could be a big financial burden. So the USDA and Vermont Agency of Agriculture both encourage all farmers to take the necessary precautions to lessen the risk of infection for their flocks.
“We are working as closely as we can with Vermont poultry producers,” said Mehlenbacher. “People involved in all levels of production can practice disease prevention methods known as biosecurity.”
Stone said his Orwell farm is already preparing for the arrival of HPAI.
“We’re limiting who can go in the barn with the turkeys and making sure that our clothes are clean and our boots are disinfected,” he said.
Devoid, too, noted the myriad precautions Maple Meadow Farm has already begun to take.
“We already require paperwork proof from our delivery trucks that they have been washed and cleaned,” she said. “We’re being very aware. We’ve stopped doing small tours of the egg room, our employees are wearing different clothing, and we’re making sure to keep all animals out,” she added.
Officials at the other big local poultry producer, Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven, said they have also begun to take the necessary steps to protect its poultry based on the recommendations of State Veterinarian Kristin Haas.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has released to the state’s poultry producers an extensive list of precautions that may be taken to limit the effect of HPAI, such as those described by Stone and Devoid.
“We also want to encourage people to report any suspicious or dead wild birds to the USDA hotline,” Mehlenbacher said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control considers the risk to people from the current bird flu outbreak in wild birds, backyard flocks and commercial poultry, to be low. No human infections with the virus have been detected yet.
Still, the outbreak of HPAI in the Midwest and the preparations for its arrival in New England have already begun to have an economic effect on producers and consumers of poultry alike.
Devoid noted that as production in states like Iowa declines, the market price of eggs has already begun to rise.
“It may be a good thing for us,” she said. “Unfortunately, I hate to have that come at the expense of other producers.”
However, the biosecurity measures recommended by the USDA are also a costly undertaking for farms on all levels of production.
“It’s a big burden, to say the least,” said Stone.
Devoid pointed to the location of her farm’s store as a potential problem for biosecurity.
“The store is connected to the farm,” she said. “We don’t know if we’re going to have to move it.”
The USDA expects HPAI cases to decline as warmer weather kills the virus, but some authorities speculate that HPAI could reemerge as migratory birds fly south in the winter.
Devoid says her hopes remain high.
“Everything is fine here and we hope it’s going to stay that way,” she said.
Editor’s note: Additional reporting by John S. McCright.

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