Local poultry farmers remain concerned, take precautions against avian flu
Avian flu has been confirmed at various and numerous sites in the state, which is the No. 1 producer of turkeys in the nation. The avian flu is also deadly to chickens, forcing egg prices to skyrocket. Area poultry producers, however, are taking precautions to keep their flocks healthy.
BRAINERD — Area poultry producers of turkeys and chickens are ruffled by the fowl disease avian flu, which can be deadly.
There are about 2.3 million birds impacted by avian flu in Minnesota as of Friday, April 22. Cases were first confirmed in the state in late March.
“If that gets in and infects my whole flock and I lose all my flock, I'm out of business,” said Pat Ebnet, co-owner of Wild Acres Processing Inc. in Pequot Lakes.
Outbreaks of bird flu in the United States and France have disrupted global supply chains and increased the purchase costs for the food staple for consumers.
Closer to home, flocks in Stearns and Morrison counties were confirmed on March 31 to be infected, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
“We went through this in 2015 and we dodged that bullet,” said Derek Gold of Gold Turkey Farms in Motley.
Gold is the fourth generation in his family to be involved with the poultry industry.
“We've been in business since the early ‘60s and we do egg production. We produce fertile turkey eggs for hatching purposes,” Gold said of Gold Turkey Farms.
The majority of infection sites in the state have been in commercial meat turkey operations. Two commercial chicken operations in Morrison County — a broiler flock and an egg layer flock — and four backyard producers, however, were recently confirmed by the state to be infected.
The closer the avian flu gets, the more precautions area producers are taking.
“Literally nobody other than employees is allowed on the farm at this point — lots of extra disinfecting vehicles, people — stuff like that,” Gold said of precautions Gold Turkey Farms is taking. “Other than that, just a lot of prayer.”
The extremely contagious pathogen is fatal to domestic poultry, according to Abby Schuft, an Extension educator with the University of Minnesota.
“Our (poultry) products are still safe to eat and consume, and none of these affected birds are entering our food chain,” Schuft told Forum News Service.
Schuft is involved in the development of biosecurity outreach tools like the web-based Poultry Disease Planning Tool. She is based in Willmar but works with poultry farmers across the state.
“Like any other food product, they're highly tested before they even enter the food system, so the poultry products that you like to enjoy and consume on a regular basis are still going to be safe to eat,” Schuft stated.
The new avian influenza strain that has forced the destruction of tens of millions of domestic poultry nationwide is also spreading rapidly among wild bird populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
Gold said Gold Turkey Farms sells eggs to Select Genetics in Willmar, which hatches them and supplies them worldwide.
“They've had to murder three flocks along with the replacements for that, so they're talking five, six, maybe seven months until they can even get birds in those barns again, which means probably 10 months of missed income plus all the loss on top of it,” Gold said.
The virus has not caused human illness, however, and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recent bird flu Infections in U.S. wild birds and poultry pose a low risk to the public.
Minnesota is the No. 1 producer of turkeys in the nation and is home to 600 turkey farms, according to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association website. The industry, according to the association, provides the state with over $1 billion in economic activity and more than 26,000 jobs.
“I'm a small business and less government is always better,” Gold said of state involvement in the bird flu situation. “I would love it if they kept out of it completely, to be honest.”
Wild Acres Processing Inc. began in 1978 and has been specializing in outdoor-raised domestic poultry and wild game birds ever since, according to the company’s website. It is now operated by second-generation owner Pat Ebnet and his wife Kelli.
Ebnet said the family-owned business is taking the same precautions it did in 2015 when the United States had its worst-ever outbreak of bird flu.
“Nobody comes onto our farm except for employees or suppliers that need to be,” he said. “We are decontaminating everything about a quarter-mile from our farm. We've moved our employee parking lot back to that quarter-mile … so everything’s decontaminated before it comes in.”
Spring weather can make these procedures difficult because of mud, rain, wind and other shifting weather conditions, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
“We've never had any case of avian influenza,” Ebnet said. “We keep our farm very secluded. We also are on the end of a dead-end street, so we don't have a lot of traffic driving right by and where we raise our birds is a half-mile from the road.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the highly pathogenic avian influenza has caused the death of snow geese by the dozens in North and South Dakota, Iowa and Missouri, and of snowy owls, hawks, swans, crows, vultures, cormorants, pelicans and other waterfowl.
“Our biggest concern that we have is the migratory wildlife that is coming through — the Canada geese, the mallards, all of that stuff, the ducks that are migrating — because they're the ones that are carrying it and transporting it and spreading this disease, this virus,” Ebnet said.
One of the most common ways highly pathogenic avian influenza moves around is through the movement of dead birds and garbage off the farm, according to the state Board of Animal Health.
“We have a Department of Agriculture inspector on hand every time we process,” Ebnet said. “A lot of these smaller hobby farms or individuals that just want to raise some birds in the back … they don't know exactly how to take care of them correctly.”
Russell Kleinschmidt owns Kleinschmidt Farms in Staples. He provides chickens and turkey broilers, and eggs.
“We’re a small, local, family farm that tries to manage based on holistic, regenerative and sustainable types of methods,” Kleinschmidt said. “We're not certified organic or anything … but we’re using natural, organic-type methods.”
Eggs from Kleinschmidt Farms are pastured, cage-free, free-range non-genetically modified organisms, according to the farm’s Facebook page.
“I found out that Walmart was sold out of eggs in a couple locations. I also looked at a couple local grocery stores and they were also low, had a limit on eggs or for large corporate conventional farms large eggs I saw a price for $4.19 a dozen!” according to a March 29 post from Kleinschmidt Farms.
Wholesale prices for large eggs in the Midwest topped $3 per dozen in March and reached the second-highest level ever, up nearly 200% from a year earlier on the spot market, according to data firm Urner Barry.
Consumers who depend on eggs as a low-cost source of protein and substitute for more expensive meat are definitely feeling the pinch of increased prices for eggs.
According to Reuters calculations of federal and state government data, avian flu has decimated more than 19 million egg-laying chickens on commercial U.S. farms this year in the worst outbreak since 2015, eliminating about 6% of the country's flock.
“We're maybe at less risk just because we try to keep our birds as healthy as possible … try to keep them outside on pasture, things like that,” Kleinschmidt said. “Where the risk comes in is, because they're outside, they could be in contact with wild birds or more easily get a disease. … “If they would get the disease, it may not spread as fast because they're not contained there in a small area or a building so that might help us there.”
Influenza is not uncommon and it has been around for centuries, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, and influenza in poultry “is not a food safety issue.”
The first indication of highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry is sudden death, often without signs of illness, according to the state Board of Animal Health.
The impact could be devastating on larger operations, Kleinschmidt said.
“If we would get it, you know, I've got a small flock that would impact the food system less so versus a big barn or something like that … that can be tens of thousands of birds that would have to be put down,” Kleinschmidt said.
U.S. table egg production totaled 96.9 billion in 2020, down 2% from 2019, according to United Egg Producers, a cooperative of American farmers, and the U.S. had 325 million commercial laying hens at the end of 2020, down 5% from 2019.
“I’ve been watching my birds. They are maintaining egg production,” Kleinschmidt said. “They're healthy, they're moving around. They're just as active and boisterous as they always are, so they're healthy right now and I hope to keep it that way.”