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Bird flu hot topic at livestock forum

WILLMAR -- The threat of a worldwide outbreak of avian influenza has national and international leaders on alert, but Minnesota agriculture officials said the work of conducting surveillance, identification, notification, investigation and eradication of the disease will be the responsibility of local poultry producers and state agriculture and health officials.

Avian influenza, sometimes called bird flu, was the primary topic Friday at a day-long livestock conference in Willmar.

Plans to respond to the potential arrival of the deadly flu that has killed an estimated 200 million birds and at least 105 people worldwide were outlined during the conference.

There was also discussion about the need for proper prevention and biosecurity that could keep avian influenza from infecting commercial flocks of poultry if -- or when -- the disease enters the United States.

It's feared that migratory waterfowl will bring the disease to the United States, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the Broiler and Egg Association of Minnesota.

Minnesota is more prepared to deal with avian influenza than other states, said Olson, because the state has a long history of dealing with avian influenza.

There are two types of bird flu, he said.

The low-pathogenic avian influenza, which is an upper respiratory disease in poultry, was rampant in Minnesota in 1989, 1995 and 1996. That's when turkey producers stopped raising birds on pasture ranges and put them inside barns, where they would not be exposed to wild birds.

After that, the instances of the low-pathogenic bird flu in Minnesota decreased drastically, said Dale Laurer, a member of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health who operates the Minnesota poultry testing lab in Willmar.

No humans have ever gotten ill from the common strain of bird flu, and properly cooked poultry that have the disease are safe to eat, said Olson, who urged participants to get that message out to consumers.

Laurer said 99 percent of the bird flu in the world is a low-pathogenic virus that "doesn't get a lot of attention."

The high-pathogenic strain of bird flu is different. It's a systemic disease that can kill poultry within 12 to 48 hours. The disease has also made the jump to humans, primarily in countries where families live and sleep with chickens.

"This is a big deal. We can't escape it," said Laurer.

The state is developing procedures if the high-pathogenic strain comes to Minnesota, including how to properly dispose of the diseased animals, which would not enter the food chain but be destroyed, said Olson.

It's hoped that biosecurity measures will prevent the dangerous strain of bird flu from affecting the poultry industry here.

Unlike countries where a large number of people live close to poultry, in Minnesota a few people take care of a large number of birds. Those workers also follow a strict level of biosecurity and sanitation measures -- like showering and putting on clean clothes after leaving one farm and before going to another farm -- to prevent the transfer of disease.

Foot traffic by people going from farm to farm without following safety procedures is the "biggest breach" of biosecurity that can result in spreading disease, said Ron Lippert, a veterinarian for the Willmar Poultry Company.

It isn't cheap to implement biosecurity methods, but Lippert said "it doesn't cost. It saves."

Large commercial flocks may actually be better protected from avian influenza than the small backyard flocks, said Laurer. Efforts are being made to have contact with small producers so that they can be informed about the disease and prevention measures.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said it's important to "keep consumer confidence" in agriculture high by dealing with avian influenza "aggressively."

Even if the bird flu does come here, there's no guarantee it will be transmitted to humans, causing a pandemic.

Joni Scheftel, a veterinarian who works with the Minnesota Department of Health, said every year 630 Minnesotans, and 36,000 total Americans, die from the ordinary winter flu that gets passed from person to person.

A number of other livestock issues were addressed at the forum, including:

- The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is continuing to respond to the presence of bovine tuberculosis in Minnesota. The disease was eliminated from the state in 1971 and ag officials did not expect to see it in Minnesota again. It was discovered in four herds in northern Minnesota last year.

The United States Department of Agriculture has paid a total of $3.2 million to the farmers for the 4,000 animals, which were killed, said Bill Hartman, state veterinarian with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. Most of the animals did not have TB and the meat was put into the market.

Agreeing to the depopulation of the herds was difficult for the cattle owners but beneficial to the state because it will mean regaining the state's TB-free status a year sooner.

The disease can be transferred to wild deer, however, which could make it more difficult to eradicate.

- Gov. Tim Pawlenty said continued growth of livestock agriculture is crucial to Minnesota's economy. He said small and large farms are important, as long as they can remain competitive in the market.

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, chastised the Land Stewardship Project for only promoting small farms and not accepting "diverse" agriculture, including large farms. He compared the acceptance of diversity in the size of farms and feedlots to the acceptance of diversity in sexual orientation and gay marriage -- a comparison that raised a few eyebrows in the room.

Dille discussed an informational booklet he put together about the benefits that livestock has to the economy and environment and the need for the farms to expand so that farmers can make a living.

"I'm sick of these organizations that want to promote poverty on the farm," said Dille.

Pawlenty said "average people don't understand" the value of agriculture and its $28 billion impact to the state's economy. He challenged participants to "spread the word" about the value of livestock agriculture, which he said is responsible for 49 percent of the overall ag economy in Minnesota.

Pawlenty said milk is being trucked to Minnesota from New Mexico and that if dairy farms aren't allowed to modernize and expand, the state will "relinquish" its dairy industry to other states.

- Local governments, like counties and townships, now have a new tool to help them work through land-use issues for livestock operations. A state-sponsored training and assistance guide book is available, as well as a new state employee who has the job of helping entities work through the procedures and mitigate potential feedlot problems.

Information about the guidebook is available at:

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750