Town of Palmyra neighbors fear unknown in avian flu composting operation

Colleen Kottke and Amber Burke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Town of Palmyra residents Lyle and Kay Braaten  live across the road from a 40-acre field that will be used to compost nearly 3 million laying hens from a nearby commercial poultry operation hit by avian influenza. The couple fear the water supply of their home of 15 years will be impacted by the decomposing carcasses.

A knock on Lyle Braaten's door last week upended his life in a matter of minutes.

The Town of Palmyra resident was informed by a representative from the USDA that the carcasses of 2.7 million laying hens from a Jefferson County farm confirmed to have the state's first case of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), would be composted in a field across from their home.

The couple made calls to the town board, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Jefferson County Health Department and state government officials in a search of answers.

"We feel like the whole situation has been handled poorly and just just want our questions answered," Braaten said. "We want to ensure that our well is not going to be affected and our water will be safe to drink, not to mention the value of our property in general."

Samantha Otterson, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), says the multi-agency response team comprised of officials from DATCP, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the DNR have been busy responding to the incident in an appropriate and effective manner since the HPAI virus was confirmed on March 14 at Cold Spring Egg Farms, owned by S&R Egg Company.

Otterson says she and her counterpart from the USDA have been fielding questions from concerned neighbors living near the site where the birds will be composted.

"I've had many phone and in-person conversations on doorsteps with neighbors explaining the process of composting, and the fact that we're not burying the birds," she says. "We don't want people to be scared, and we know that composting is the most effective and efficient way to handle large volumes of carcasses."

Contractors prepare the site on a 40-acre parcel of land in the town of Palmyra that will be used to compost millions of chicken carcasses from a Jefferson County poultry operation hit by the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus.  Long windrows of compost material will encase the birds as they decompose, eradicating the virus, according to USDA standards of safe disposal.

Site selection

Keith Poulsen, an expert in veterinary infectious diseases with the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and School of Veterinary Medicine says the state agriculture department, DNR and USDA has amassed a trove of information on composting infected birds since the 2015 avian influenza outbreak in Wisconsin that impacted nine commercial flocks and one backyard flock, causing the loss of more than 1.9 million birds.

"The process they're using is pretty well studied and backed up by peer reviewed literature. Composting is the best way to deal with the birds in this situation since we don't have a large-scale incinerator, which comes with air quality issues of its own," Poulsen said. "Heat generated in the composting process is very effective in deactivating the avian influenza virus."

With an outbreak of HPAI, options to dispose birds become more limited. Ideally the less movement of dead birds and infected litter/eggs is best, as the main goal is to prevent disease spread and ensure biosecurity of other poultry houses and neighboring farms. 

While some birds have already been composted on-site within an existing building, Otterson says DNR officials rejected composting the large majority of birds on land surrounding Cold Spring Egg Farms, deeming the site not viable due to the water table being too high. The preferred depth to groundwater should exceed 24 inches to seasonal highwater tables and on-site soil depths should exceed 36 inches to bedrock, according to USDA guidelines. 

"Certainly we tried to defer to composting on site as it makes it easier in many different realms," Otterson said.

Following USDA animal mortality composting guidelines, Otterson says DNR officials evaluated several potential composting locations in Jefferson County before settling on a land parcel near Palmyra owned by S&R Egg Company.

According to DATCP, the site meets both locational and size criteria for composting. 

In addition to meeting the groundwater requirement, the site met other criteria: located 200 feet from a water supply well used for drinking, water bodies and nearby residences; 50 feet from a drainage swale leading into a water body; and 25 feet from a drainage swale not leading to a water body.

While Poulsen understands residents concerns, he says experts from all involved agencies have put in a lot of thought and pre-planning before moving forward with disposing the birds.

"They're taking everyone's viewpoint into account, because the consequences of being wrong are pretty high," Poulsen said. "Safety is extremely high for all stakeholders involved. It's unfortunate when everyone is so busy communication can fall between the cracks."

A dump truck moves along a newly constructed service road leading to a site that will be used to compost millions of laying hens impacted by the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus on a Jefferson County poultry farm. The land parcel, selected by the DNR, is owned by S&R Egg Company.

Effective alternative

Composting provides an inexpensive alternative for disposing dead animals. Laura Blanton, assistant director at USDA Animal and Plant Health, says temperatures achieved during properly managed composting will kill most pathogens, reducing the chance to spread disease. The process is relatively odor-free and both egg and hatching waste can be composted as well.

MORE: Highly pathogenic avian influenza confirmed in Jefferson Co. flock

MORE: Officials: 'Stepped Up' Biosecurity limited spread of Avian flu

Crews are currently constructing the compost site which includes establishing large windrows with thick layers of carbon-based compost chips on top and underneath the carcasses. Encasing and topping the birds with at least one foot of the carbon layer encourages the higher temperatures that speed decomposition, absorbs odors, and provides additional protection against water penetrating to the area of the windrow where the carcasses have been placed.

"That also helps to mitigate the smell and to make sure animals can't access the dead birds buried inside," Otterson said. 

Disease transmission

Carrie Walsh, who also lives nearby, expressed concerns over the animals on her family farm being exposed to the avian flu.

"It's hard to sleep at night when you don't know what is going on," she said.

Ron Kean, a faculty associate and extension specialist in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences doesn't believe there’s any evidence of cross contamination of HPAI with any other animals other than birds. Those with backyard flocks, however, should remain vigilant.

Several barns used to house laying hens on the Cold Spring Egg Farm are visible along Hwy 59 between Palmyra and Whitewater. A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza was identified at the farm in mid-March.

“Anything you can do to discourage any live wild bird interaction by keeping other animals out of the facility is best,” Kean said. DATCP officials are still investigating how the virus entered the Cold Spring Egg Farm faclity.

According to the USDA, compost piles will be inspected regularly by staff from the farm, DNR, and DATCP for any evidence of leakage, odor, and disruption.

The full composting process takes approximately 30 days from final construction and involves daily monitoring to ensure the compost is reaching the optimum temperature to deactivate the virus as quickly as possible. Windrows will reach temperatures exceeding 130 degrees for at least 72 hours and is sufficient to inactivate many pathogens including avian influenza.

Before the composting materials can be released and the quarantine zone lifted, officials will pull samples from the site and send them to the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to test for evidence of pathogens. 

"They are very careful in making sure these samples are representative of the entire site because the consequences of being wrong are very high. So they need a high certainty before lifting that quarantine zone," Poulsen said. 

Currently poultry premises within 10 kilometers of Cold Spring Egg Farm are being monitored for the virus and are restricted from moving poultry and poultry products.

After the composting process is complete and the compost has been released by DATCP, the compost will be removed from the premises at the discretion of the land owner.

Experts say Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) is a serious disease and requires a rapid response because it is highly contagious and often fatal to chickens.

Understanding stress

Scott Schneider, owner and operator of Nature Link Farms, a commercial poultry operation in Lake Mills, knows firsthand of the stress avian influenza can cause, as his farm was struck by the devastating disease in 2015.

"It certainly was quite an ordeal working with all of the different governmental agencies," Schneider said. "My biggest takeaway was that they were all extremely helpful and provided excellent support. They made a very difficult situation more tolerable." 

Schneider also used the USDA's composting plan.

"It was a prescribed formula," he explained. "Experts came and trained us how to do it. It was very effective."

After the compost was released by DATCP, Schneider was able to use the compost on Nature Link Farms' fields as fertilizer.

Once the infected birds were removed from the farm, Schneider said it took over three months to get the farm disinfected and ready to receive new birds back into the facility.

"You have to go through a very extensive disinfecting process, including a heating process that requires you to keep your buildings heated at 100 degrees for at least a week. Then, professionals come back in and test every corner of your barns to make sure every element of the virus is gone," he said.

Schneider understands the worries presented by the Palmyra area residents.

"I think its very normal to be concerned, but I truly believe the risks are limited. Composting is safe as a result of all the planning that goes into the process. We didn’t have any bad odors or find any leaching into the soil after the fact," Schneider said.

Poulsen echoed Schneider's confidence in the process and people involved.

"A lot of agencies are working really hard to make sure they stop and prevent the spread of this virus and to make sure the impacts to everyone involved are as minimal as possible," he said. "It's a big deal when you have to depopulate 3 million birds. The local economy is vested in an operation this size, as well as a ton of other stakeholders involved. There's a lot of people working around the clock to get this done."

To access DATCP's HPAI daily update, visit https://bit.ly/3Lh7w4w. The website also includes a FAQ link that is regularly updated. To facilitate answering questions from the public, DATCP has established an Avian Influenza Response Line available by calling (608) 224-4902. Callers can leave a message with their questions or concerns; messages are checked daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.