Ready for bird flu: Lessons were learned in the 2015 avian influenza crisis that has the industry ready for 2016

WILLMAR -- This time last year -- to be blunt -- all hell was breaking loose on west central Minnesota poultry farms as thousands of commercially raised turkeys and chickens began dropping dead from a highly contagious bird flu.All told, more tha...

Expansion and renovation at the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar is under budget and on track to meet a late summer completion date. RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE

WILLMAR - This time last year - to be blunt - all hell was breaking loose on west central Minnesota poultry farms as thousands of commercially raised turkeys and chickens began dropping dead from a highly contagious bird flu.
All told, more than 9 million birds in Minnesota were either killed by the disease or euthanized to prevent its spread.
The economic cost to the state is estimated at $650 million.
Since then, the poultry industry, government agencies and researchers have learned huge lessons about bird flu, the value of biosecurity to prevent spreading the disease from one farm to the next and how to launch a statewide response if another epidemic hits.
“A year later everybody is a lot smarter,” said veterinarian Dr. Dale Lauer, director of the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar.
That awareness extends countrywide from top government agencies and researchers to laborers who work in the poultry barns.
It’s believed the disease was brought to Minnesota last year by migrating waterfowl. The primary piece of the new game plan is increased biosecurity to prevent viruses from entering poultry barns.
Producers have added layers of training, protective gear and new procedures to prohibit viruses from coming onto farms on the wheels of vehicles or the feet of workers, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
Developing a rapid response to an outbreak was the next lesson learned.
According to Lauer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and the entire poultry industry are “better able to respond” to a potential onset of bird flu and have established a “24-hour target guideline” to euthanize poultry within 24 hours of being diagnosed.
“We’ve got equipment staged around the state. We’ve got people trained,” Lauer said.
A standby emergency command center, with supplies and access to appropriate technology, is set up in the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building in Willmar.
If a new outbreak occurs, Lauer said teams can “move very quickly” to respond to early cases and “manage an event” from that location.
The Minnesota National Guard also has a mobile testing unit that can be brought to a crisis site.
“If we get hot spots, the mobile lab is ready to move,” Olson said.
Federal and state documentation has been streamlined and there will be more consistent oversight by government agencies when birds need to be euthanized, he said.
“We were ready when it hit last year, but we weren’t as ready as we are now,” Olson said.
High alert
In 2015, the first case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N2) was recorded March 4 on a Pope County farm.
There was a three-week reprieve before the next case was detected March 27 in Lac qui Parle County. More cases and more counties were added to the list in the following week.
Kandiyohi County had its first case of H5N2 confirmed April 4 and by the end of the summer had a total of 40 farms - the most of any county in the state - affected by the bird flu.
Because of the increased waterfowl migration activity underway now in prime poultry areas, Olson said a five-county area including Kandiyohi, Meeker, Stearns, Swift and Renville counties is currently on “high alert” with increased testing and surveillance taking place.
The three-level alert system includes “peacetime” during the mid-summer months when there is less chance of the virus spreading, “high alert” during waterfowl migration and “war time” when an active highly pathogenic virus is found in a flock.
“We’re testing more than we were a few months ago,” Olson said. “We’re ramping it up.”
“Producers are looking more closely at their flocks,” Lauer said. “We haven’t identified anything at all so far.”
It’s hoped that extra attention would lead to early detection and faster action to “lock down the virus” and prevent it spreading to other flocks, Olson said. “But no matter what we do, it may still get into the barns.”
Back on track
Olson said 100 percent of Minnesota’s turkey producers who lost birds last year have restocked their barns.
“For the most part we’re back on track,” Olson said.
Producers have taken action in areas they can control, such as increased biosecurity, and are as prepared as they can be.
“They’re definitely on alert and aware of the timeline,” Olson said. “But I didn’t get the sense that anyone was panicky.”
Meanwhile, construction is continuing on an $8.5 million expansion and renovation project of the poultry testing lab on Business Highway 71 in Willmar that will more than triple the size of the lab and include the sensitive - and very expensive - equipment that can test for highly pathogenic poultry viruses.
Last year poultry samples were ferried twice a day from Willmar to the University of Minnesota’s diagnostic testing lab in St. Paul, which delayed response time and action to deal with infected flocks in greater Minnesota.
Lauer and his crew are currently housed in a temporary location on High Avenue in Willmar. Set up in an unused warehouse, the lab tests samples brought in by producers on a daily basis.
Construction of the 12,000-square-foot project is on time and under-budget, said Lauer, who is also busy making decisions on equipment and interior design and interviewing additional technicians to staff the lab.
The project is expected to be completed and operational by Labor Day.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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