Avian Flu: Owners should stay vigilant for at least another year

By Emily Olsen / The Sanpete Messenger, December 21, 2022
Sanpete County, Utah

Dr. Annika McKillop, a veterinary medical officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Veterinary Services, wears protective gear before entering a chicken coop.

Residents who maintain backyard chicken coops need to observe their chickens every day for signs of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food also recommends that chickens be kept inside and away from wild birds.

Sanpete poultry farmers and bird owners should be on guard for at least another year.

The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), a deadly strain of avian flu that has spread like wildfire, has impacted 700,000 turkeys and 1 million chickens in all of Utah this year, and it will likely return in the spring, said Bailee Woolstenhulme, Public Information Officer for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF).

“We are preparing for another season, if [HPAI] follows the trends in Europe,” she said. Certain flocks of poultry throughout the United States have the same Eurasian H5 strain of the disease, “and they are currently in their second year.”

The HPAI strain is different from the 2015 avian flu variety, which diminished during the hot months of the summer. This year, there was little letting up during the summer months at all. Gratefully, it seems to have subsided through the coldest months of the winter.

“There have been no cases since October in Sanpete County,” Woolstenhulme said, which has offered some relief to Sanpete commercial turkey farms during the holidays.

The highly contagious strain of avian flu was detected in seven states almost simultaneously in February of this year. Due to migration patterns of wild birds, Utah did not see its first case of HPAI until April, Woolstenhulme said.

This strain of avian flu has significantly impacted the price and availability of poultry food products nationwide, independently of other causes of inflation. For example, in mid-October, the national average wholesale price of a dozen AA eggs was $3.61, which was an increase of 210 percent from the year before, when the same dozen eggs cost $0.96 wholesale. By the end of October 2022, the price had eased to $2.99, a decrease of 17 percent, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wholesale costs are the price that grocery stores pay before the retail mark-up is added, so the take-home price for consumers can be 30-50% more.

Sadly, the only way to stop the spread of the disease is to depopulate (or cull) a whole flock when one bird tests positive for the disease. The process has been a serious loss for Sanpete poultry farmers.

“We are working closely with poultry producers to help them increase their biosecurity practices,” Woolstenhulme said. “If they are impacted, we help them restore their flocks as quickly as possible.”

If a positive case is detected, a farm must be shut down until all members of its flock are properly removed and the facility is successfully decontaminated.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has deployed teams alongside their USDA partners “to help streamline depopulation, burial and decontamination,” Woolstenhulme said.

The USDA provides indemnity relief (compensation) to farmers for the birds lost but not for the months that it can take to restore their farm and build up a new flock, she said.

Woolstenhulme acknowledged that many farmers have additional business insurance to protect them from such losses, but coverage provided by various policies will differ.

This year’s strain of avian flu has spread directly through wild birds and is more contagious than in 2015.

“While this disease is spread mainly by wild birds, we saw that in 2015 we had a lot more spread due to humans tracking it from farms, whereas this year’s strain has spread more from contact with wild birds, Woolstenhulme said. “This strain has shown to be more contagious than in 2015, as well.”

To protect their flocks, farmers must keep them locked up and out of the reach of wild birds, their feathers or feces, she said.

Anyone who works with flocks or pet birds should observe a biosecurity checklist provided by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food this year, available at ag.utah.gov:

  • Clean and disinfect equipment to remove feces, feathers and litter.
  • Wear dedicated clothing and boots that you only use when caring for your poultry.
  • Store feed and fresh litter in closed bins to prevent contamination. Keep bagged feed off the floor. Remove spilled or uneaten feed right away.
  • Do not share tools or poultry supplies with other flocks.
  • Quarantine any new birds for 30 days.
  • Check all birds for signs of illness daily.

“Wild birds and pests can spread [the] disease, but so can feathers, nests, feces, and other organic materials,” the checklist says. “These items can come in contact with your flock through poultry enclosures, feed and water supplies, and even vehicles.”

Signs of the illness, according to the checklist, include:

  • Reduced energy or appetite
  • Decreased water consumption
  • Lower egg production
  • Soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
  • Swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and shanks
  • Purple discoloration of the wattles, comb and legs
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Twisting of the head and neck
  • Stumbling or falling down
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased activity
  • Tremors
  • Circling
  • Complete stillness

“Some bird death is normal. A large percentage of dead or dying birds in your flock is not normal,” the checklist says. “Rule out obvious causes, such as predators, weather, or other factors. Report unexplained large death losses to your veterinarian, your cooperative extension agent, or UDAF right away.”

USDA Veterinary Services may be reached at (801) 524-5010, and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food may be reached at (801) 982-2200.

For more information about how to keep your flocks healthy, follow Defend the Flock on Facebook and Twitter and visit www.aphis.usda.gov/animalhealth/defendtheflock.

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