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Farmers preparing for potentially devastating bird flu

Written by Chris Cappella, Hanover Evening Sun | Aug 21, 2015 1:45 PM
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(Undated) -- Elisa Livelsberger has lived at her New Oxford home for three years.

Her family, which includes her husband and two young children, owns Verdura Fresca Farms. Their farm is home to one turkey and about 30 chickens, the eggs of which help feed her family and bring in a few extra dollars. In the next few years, their goal is to continue to add flocks of birds and plant more crops to become completely dependent on their land for a cheaper means of living, she said.

In the way of those plans could be the avian influenza, a highly contagious strain of bird flu. The flu has killed more than 48 million birds, like chickens and turkeys, in 15 states west of Indiana since December, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pennsylvania bird owners are preparing for the flu to come their way, which hasn't hit the state since 1983-84.

If it does, the results could nearly wipe out the local bird population and diminish overall poultry production. For those who rely on their land, the disease could cost Adams County farmers their ability to make a living.

"For us, it would be a severe inconvenience," Livelsberger said. "For local family farms, that's their livelihood. Those people are bankrupt if they get hit with the influenza."

Spread of flu can happen quickly

Farmers can take steps now to help decrease the possibility of the flu spreading even if it does come to Pennsylvania, said Greg Martin, a member of the poultry team at Penn State extension.

The flu can spread quickly, easily and through many different ways, Martin said. A bird that has the flu and makes contact with another bird could spread the disease. Birds with the disease that defecate on the ground have now put the disease in the soil, so if a bird walks over that infected soil, it could also pick up the disease that way, Martin said.

Using measures of cleanliness, also known as biosecurity, can help farmers avoid the flu or catch it early, Martin said. For example, bird cages and farming equipment and apparel should be getting cleaned more often, he said.

"It might sound odd to tell a farmer to knock the soil off his shoes before entering a farm or factory or wherever they're going, but everyone has to take extreme precaution on how easily the disease spreads," he said.

If an infected bird goes undetected, a farmer would not only be forced to eliminate his entire flock, but would have to turn over large amounts of soil to rid the land of the flu, he said.

"For our farm, we're doing things like not driving our truck from the front yard to the backyard when we need something," Livelsberger said. Other routines would also be disturbed if the flu hit Pennsylvania, she said.

Usually, Livelsberger will rotate flocks of chickens every two years. This year, her farm will just raise chicks to avoid buying infected birds. The downside of raising chicks is decreased egg production compared to a fully grown bird, Livelsberger said. Most chicks don't even begin laying eggs until they're about six months old and won't hit their peak egg production until two to three years after, she said.

Poultry production is taking a hit

The economic impact of the flu has hit states in the Midwest hard. Approximately 60 percent of egg-laying chickens in Iowa have been killed by the disease or to prevent the spreading of the disease, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The elimination of the flocks has resulted in an economic hit of around $390 million dollars in poultry and egg exports, according to the department.

Pennsylvania has a $13 billion dollar poultry industry, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

For those like Livelsberger, the flu would not prevent her from providing for her family because they have other ways of income.

For others, it would hinder the ability to make a living.

"If we were to have an outbreak, it would be pretty financially devastating," said Beau Rambsurg, who owns Rettland Farm in Mount Joy Township. "Because of the measures the USDA makes, it would wipe out all the birds we have on hand."

The Department of Agriculture would be responsible for the disposal and cleanup of all the birds on a farm, Martin said.

Ramsburg owns more than 2,000 chickens and sells the meat from those chickens to retail or wholesale stores, he said. There is no second job to rely on, farming is all Ramsburg has.

"It's a scary idea that it could come through," he said. "It would put us in a hole."

Identifying bird flu symptoms and risk

Farmers have to be aware of the symptoms of the disease, Martin said. Chickens will have an obvious drooping and swelling in their faces and there will be a rapid decline in egg production, he said.

It's farmers like Livelsberger who should be on a higher alert, said Eva Pendleton, an avian pathologist at one of the state's three animal diagnostic labs at State College.

Farmers with fewer birds like Livelsberger are usually the least aware of what the flu is but the first to get hit by it, Pendleton said. An overall lack of knowledge and awareness about the flu could result in some of the earliest, but most important cases, to go unknown.

"When the disease first started in December of 2014, many of the cases in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and such, they would find this virus first in wild ducks, then they would find it in the small flocks," she said. "It wasn't until later that large farms were getting hit."

Farmers who see rapid, unexplained deaths to even just a few chickens are encouraged to work with their local veterinary departments and call the Department of Agriculture to have the deaths investigated, Pendleton said.

"We can nip this in the bud if we catch the first case or two, but we can't do it alone," she said.

Pennsylvania is preparing

If the flu does make it to Pennsylvania, the state has the financial resources available to continue its work and be ready, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in a July press release.

"We need to plan and act as if it could at any moment, which is a distinct possibility," Redding said. "When this virus hit in 1983 and 1984, 17 million birds were lost. That equated to a $65 million negative impact to our state's economy. We are doing everything possible to avoid that kind of devastation."

Gov. Tom Wolf approved spending $3.5 million on preparation efforts, said Brandi Hunter-Davenport, the press secretary for the state's Department of Agriculture. The money is specifically being used to bolster animal health staffs, gather laboratory supplies to test for the flu and secure other equipment that will be needed in the field to respond to an infected flock, she said.

"This is as much a preparedness measure as a long-term investment in a future for the Pennsylvania poultry industry," Hunter-Davenport said. "One we hope is influenza-free."

The Department of Agriculture also suspended all avian shows at county fairs in 2015 and at the 2016 Pennsylvania Farm Show, she said.

Migration season poses trouble

There have been no positive cases of the flu since June 17, but that was expected with temperatures rising, Martin said in mid-July.

There isn't a lot of movement from wild birds over the summer. Tensions will start rising in the coming months as birds migrate hundreds of miles around the country, Pendleton said.

For example, a goose in Canada just 75 miles north of Erie was found carrying the disease, she said. Animals like that could migrate over Adams County, putting the state more at risk.

"It's something everyone has to be aware of," she said. "We do emphasize for hunters to put on protective shoes, like muck boots, because anyone can pick up and carry the disease without knowing it."

The Department of Agriculture website provides updates of the disease when needed, Martin said.

The flu is expected to be a threat for a few years, Pendleton said.

The flu can be carried by wild ducks for four to five years and can stay active in cooler settings, she said. The lower temperatures of soil and ponds can hold the flu for weeks at a time.

"This is something we'll be dealing with for a while," she said.

This article comes to us through a partnership between the Hanover Evening Sun and WITF.

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