Minnesota readies for bird flu outbreak

ST. PAUL -- Poultry farmers and experts say they are as ready as possible for a new avian flu outbreak at any time this fall, even if they don't know exactly how the disease is spread.

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Turkey producer Robert Orsten of Willmar tells Minnesota House members Tuesday that he did not see most other family members from April through June in fear they may pass avian flu from one farm to another. With him is Steve Olson, executive director of Minnesota poultry associations. (Don Davis | Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL - Poultry farmers and experts say they are as ready as possible for a new avian flu outbreak at any time this fall, even if they don’t know exactly how the disease is spread.
“We are prepared for dealing with this disease,” Minnesota State Veterinarian Bill Hartmann told members of the state House agriculture committees Tuesday.
On the other hand, David Halvorson of the University of Minnesota admitted that experts like him still do not know the origin of the virus that infected Minnesota’s first turkey flock last Feb. 27, and was confirmed on March 5. “We don’t actually know the answer.”
Minnesota, he said, is known as the avian influenza capital of the country given its large number of poultry (the state is the country’s largest turkey producer), the number of lakes and the amount of water fowl that fly over. State poultry producers are used to dealing with low-pathogen flu, but this year’s outbreak of high-pathogen flu was centered on Minnesota and became the largest livestock illness issue in the country’s history.
As farmers take various methods of keeping the virus out of their barns, Halvorson said if the virus is common in the environment, it may be impossible to keep it out of barns no matter what is done.
Turkey producer Robert Orsten of Willmar told lawmakers that he, like other poultry farmers, is building new biosecurity measures that mean once a worker enters a turkey barn he changes his clothes, including boots, and changes back only when he leaves. The idea is that will prevent spreading the virus from barn to barn.
Oresten said he and his brother own five turkey farms, mostly in hard-hit Kandiyohi County, and went so far to contain the virus as to not even meet each other in person from April through June, when the last Minnesota bird flu infection was reported. Their mother traditionally hosts Sunday lunch for the extended family, Orsten said, but that was canceled into July.
“We knew everyone would shower...” he said. “We knew it wasn’t worth the risk.”
The outbreak resulted in 9 million Minnesota bird deaths, either killed by the flu or euthanized to prevent spread of the disease.
Barb Frank, a chicken producer from near Danube, Minn., brought a rare criticism of how government responded to the situation.
With hundreds of thousands of birds dead on her farm, she said that he never was officially notified that her young chickens were infected.
Crews hired by the federal government damaged her property, she said, but she has not been reimbursed.
Federal and state officials understand how to deal with flu-infected turkeys, she said, but chickens are raised so differently that they have not caught on to how to deal with the smaller bird. “Turkeys and chickens are very different on this.”
Most Minnesota bird deaths have been turkeys, while just to the south in Iowa chickens have been affected more.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture official promised to follow up on Frank’s concerns.
Hartmann said the USDA has paid poultry owners $70 million for euthanized birds.
Up to 520 state and federal employees and contract workers were on the job at the peak of the outbreak, said Santo Cruz of the Minnesota Agriculture Department. His department alone paid 8,000 hours of overtime.
Hartmann said improvements the state Board of Animal Health plans if the flu hits this fall include:
-- Get euthanizing done within two days so farmers may repopulate quicker.
-- Use a Willmar emergency operations center.
-- Bring in poultry veterinarians to review biosecurity plans with farmers.
-- Keep the same case manager with a farmer, to keep decisions consistent.


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