Poultry producers remember hardships

Mason Dockter
Sioux City Journal via AP
Buena Vista County turkey farmer Dale Christiansen stands between two of the three barns on his farm east of Newell, Iowa, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Five years ago, avian influenza devastated Christiansen’s turkey farm.  Christiansen how has about 27,000 birds in three barns at the location.

NEWELL, Iowa – Five years ago, a deadly virus devastated Dale Christiansen's turkey farm in rural Buena Vista County.

In the spring of 2015, a new strain of avian influenza struck the Midwest, hitting scores of poultry farms in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and elsewhere. In Iowa alone, some 31.5 million turkeys and chickens at 77 farms were lost because of the epidemic. The outbreak sent egg prices soaring, though oddly enough there was no shortage of turkeys that Thanksgiving. 

To this day, Christiansen isn't exactly sure how exactly the bird flu reached his flock. He still sometimes searches the internet for USDA reports on it. Experts said the influenza strain was probably spread by the droppings of migratory fowl, such as geese. 

Whatever the cause, he's well acquainted with the consequences of that year's avian influenza, which impacted roughly a quarter of Iowa's turkey farms. 

"I was the number one site in the whole state that got bird flu in 2015," said Christiansen, whose turkey population numbers about 27,000. 

"The USDA came in, and they euthanized everything," he added.

Re-emerging from that disruptive outbreak was a long, stressful process, but eventually he had his flock back. 

In Sac County that year, Kelli Berg and her husband, Josh, had just purchased a turkey finisher barn, their first foray into turkey husbandry -- a day before they learned that a bird flu epidemic was ravaging poultry farms. Their neighbors to the north and south were soon dealing with outbreaks. 

"As brand new producers, we didn't know what to expect, and we were scared out of our minds," Kelli Berg said. "But, it ended up not hitting our facility, so we lucked out there. We didn't have any bird flu on our facility." 

The 2015 outbreak proved to be a learning experience for the poultry industry. Producers have since implemented intensive bio-security measures to keep pathogens away from their birds.  

"Like, disinfecting right when you go into the office, which is before you go into your barn. So it's, really making sure you're disinfected, all of the vehicles on the farm, or that come on the farm, are disinfected, and then disinfecting your buildings after every turn," Berg said. "Any feed truck, any service truck, anything that would come on, they have to disinfect before they even drive on the property." 

Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, said that the new bio-security protocols were the deciding factor in curtailing the epidemic that year. Infected flocks were culled; farmers were told not to wear uncleaned outside shoes inside their turkey barns, thus keeping soil-borne pathogens at bay; and access to farms dealing with outbreaks was restricted.

In the end, despite all the hardships, it was a success story of agricultural disease management -- the last known outbreak in Iowa was reported in early June 2015, less than two months after the outbreaks began. Iowa's turkeys were repopulated, and reportedly none of the state's turkey farmers went out of business as a result of the bird flu. The new security protocols, meanwhile, leave Iowa's turkey farms in a better position to weather any future outbreaks. 

"There's definitely a heightened awareness amongst the farmers, of what they need to be doing to protect the health of the birds," Irwin said. 

The 2015 avian influenza was solely a bird problem, as it was not known to have infected any humans. It was obvious from the outset early this year, Christiansen said, that COVID-19 would not be a problem for birds, and indeed it was not.

He still keeps an eye out for any new bird ailment on the radar, as does Berg. The Iowa Turkey Federation and the Iowa Department of Agriculture do the same. 

"We still continue today to have meetings to discuss how we plan and prepare for another disease outbreak so that we can quickly address it," Irwin said. 

The events of this year had echoes of 2015 for Berg's turkey farm. They just built a new, state-of-the-art brooder site -- baby turkeys live here from shortly after they've hatched until they reach five weeks. Now a new virus has come to the farm, this time impacting the people and leaving the turkeys unscathed. 

"A lot of our help has become positive within the last week," Berg said on Nov. 18. 

"We're making it through, we're finding folks to help us," she added.