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Poultry lab officially opens Thursday

Dr. Dale Lauer stands by the recently-completed Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar that is now open after undergoing an $8.5 million expansion project. A grand opening will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday, with public tours held until 5 p.m. at the facility, located at 622 Business Highway 71 NE. (Carolyn Lange /Tribune)

WILLMAR -- Space -- lots of space -- is the first thing Dr. Dale Lauer mentions as a highlight to the new Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory where he and staff have been working for the last month.

New equipment and technology are the other highlights to the $8.5 million reconstruction and expansion project at the laboratory, which was a collaboration between the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

Located at 622 Business Highway 71 NE in Willmar, the new 11,900 square foot lab replaced the 20-year-old, cramped facility that measured about 3,665 square feet.

“We have the privilege of working in a state of art facility,” said Lauer, who supervises the facility. “It’s really nice.”

A grand re-opening will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the facility, followed by public tours until 5 p.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to attend the event.

“This facility is an important investment in our state’s $90 billion agricultural industry and the 340,000 people it employs,” Dayton said in a press release.

“This laboratory expansion will further enhance Minnesota’s ability to diagnose and respond to diseases impacting poultry,” Dayton said.

Groundbreaking was held in December for the major expansion project, which was launched following the devastating 2015 avian influenza that wiped out millions of birds in the state’s turkey and chicken flocks.

Kandiyohi County poultry producers were hit the hardest in the outbreak and drew attention to the lack of adequate testing facilities in greater Minnesota.

While the old lab provided the front-line testing for poultry producers for years, it didn’t have the type of equipment needed to diagnose highly pathogenic avian influenza.

Lauer and his staff packed up their gear last year and moved to a temporary location during the construction and moved into the new lab last month.

Lauer said he and the staff are still getting used to the new space and equipment, but during the transition didn’t miss a beat with the busy schedule of routine poultry testing for diseases like salmonella, influenza and mycoplasma.

So far this year there’s been no sign of the deadly highly pathogenic avian influenza but with fall waterfowl migration underway  -- where the disease could be spread to poultry flocks --  Lauer said poultry producers and the staff at the poultry testing lab are acutely aware of new dangers and will be ready to respond.

With the expanded facilities and new equipment, the facility is now an accredited National Animal Health Laboratory Network lab that can perform the molecular diagnostic or polymerase chain reaction tests required by the US Department of Agriculture, according to information from the Board of Animal Health and the University of Minnesota.

The lab also serves as the Authorized Laboratory for the National Poultry Improvement Plan in Minnesota and is the center for management of Board of Animal Health poultry programs.

"What began as a tragedy for our poultry industry in 2015, has transformed into innumerable opportunities for education and advancement,”  State Veterinarian Dr. Beth Thompson.

Last year samples needed to be transported to St. Paul to be tested. Having a facility greater Minnesota where poultry is produced will make it easier to respond to outbreaks faster.

"We don't want highly pathogenic avian influenza or any other illness to impact our birds, which is why we have this incredible expansion and talented staff here in Willmar,” Thompson said. “This laboratory stands as a testament to the dedication our state partners have to the health of Minnesota's poultry.”