As thousands of visitors to the Iowa State Fair last week enjoyed an egg on a stick or a turkey leg, poultry farmers across the state were still recovering from the devastation of their flocks caused by the avian influenza epidemic that hit Iowa hard earlier this year. Iowa is the nation's leading egg producing state and is in the top 10 in turkey production.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and officials of the Iowa Egg Council and the Iowa Turkey Federation held a press conference Aug. 19 in front of the Turkey Grill at the fair to discuss the next steps in rebuilding the egg and turkey industries in the state.
Avian flu cost Iowa dearly in jobs, economic loss
Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation, said the disease affected 35 turkey farms in the state, or 25% of Iowa's turkey farms. About 1.1 million turkeys were lost in Iowa due to avian flu. More than 30 million egg-laying hens and pullets died or were euthanized, about 40% of Iowa's egg laying flock, said Randy Olson, head of the Iowa Poultry Association and the Iowa Egg Council. The total economic loss in Iowa associated with this spring's "bird flu" outbreak was over $1.2 billion, according to a study released by the Iowa Farm Bureau.
A total of 77 poultry farms in the state suffered losses. As of last week, 11 of them had completed the cleaning, disinfecting and testing of their barns and are eligible to restock their flocks. Four of the sites have been restocked and the other sites are making progress towards repopulating, said Northey.
Over half of Iowa's egg production was lost
"We are proud to support Iowa's turkey and egg producers," said Branstad. "We appreciate the perseverance of our egg and turkey producers. This has been the worst animal disease outbreak in modern U.S. agriculture history."
Dave Rettig of Rembrandt Farms at Rembrandt, Iowa, a town of about 200 people, had to lay off 200 of his 900 workers when his operation was hit by bird flu. "Over half of the egg production in Iowa was wiped away over the course of three weeks and what took our company 25 years to build, half of it was wiped out."
Ross Thoreson, president of the Iowa Turkey Federation's board of directors, noted that one-quarter of the turkey farms in Iowa were hit by bird flu. "We anticipate all turkey farms affected by this disease to be repopulated by mid-December of this year," he said. "There's a lot of work being done and a lot more to do."
Fear remains bird flu will return this fall
Producers and officials are fearful bird flu will make a return this fall with an increase of migratory ducks and geese passing through the state, flying south for the winter. "We are focused on the possibility wild birds will bring avian influenza back this fall," Northey said. "To be ready for that possibility, we are working with the poultry industry to do everything we can to try to prevent a major outbreak from occurring. We need to be ready to control an outbreak quickly if the virus returns."
The Iowa Department of Ag is continuing to work with USDA and state and national poultry organizations to examine better ways to handle such a situation in the future.
Vaccine has been developed, getting closer to use
Rettig noted "USDA and some companies have come up with a vaccine that's 100% effective against this disease. We need to be allowed to use it to get our industry back up to full production. It is my understanding the vaccine is ready to be manufactured and used. We need the vaccine to put Iowans back to work, to improve our economy and to lower the cost of producing poultry and eggs for consumers."
USDA is moving closer to adding vaccines to its arsenal to help fight any re-emergence of the deadly bird flu this fall, despite uncertainty whether such an effort will be effective. USDA's Ag Research Service is developing its own vaccine to prevent turkeys and chickens from dying from the deadly virus, and reduce how much of the influenza is produced by the birds into the environment where it could affect other birds. Several companies, including Harris Vaccines of Ames, are also working on developing a vaccine.
Concern that a new strain of virus might show up
The vaccine USDA is developing, if the government decides to use it to help eradicate avian flu, is being developed based on the strain of the disease that hit Iowa and 14 other states earlier this year: much like an influenza vaccine is prepared for humans ahead of the winter flu season.
Veterinary experts, however, are worried that a new strain of bird flu virus might be "out there" and an effort to control the virus with the vaccine might be ineffective. "We may find even though we purchased vaccines and were prepared, we might see over a number of months since the last cases of the virus occurred, that the virus has since mutated," says T.J. Myers, associate deputy administrator of veterinary services for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "There might be a new strain out there, and we don't know how the vaccines we're now developing would perform on a new strain of virus."
USDA to release new plan to deal with bird flu
USDA is working on a new plan it'll roll out soon on how to deal with bird flu, if the flu strikes again this fall. "Ideas are being shared and the plan is being put together," says Irwin. "This disease was a unique experience and first time for such a widespread outbreak in Iowa animal agriculture. Lessons were learned. We'll be better prepared now, after going through this."
Any details about USDA's plan that's expected to be introduced? "The key point of the next plan will be to depopulate infected farms quicker," says Irwin. "We weren't able to do it fast enough this spring. Also, USDA is looking at different ways of paying an indemnity to help farmers recover from losses due to death of so many turkeys and egg laying hens. USDA may be looking at a per square foot payment for poultry farmers instead of trying to itemize everything that's lost. Such an approach would take a lot of guesswork and paperwork out of filing the loss claims. Most of our farmers are spending 40 or more hours on paperwork. That's valuable time they need to be using to take care of their poultry facilities and farms, to prepare to return to production."
Biosecurity steps are being strengthened
What's Irwin's confidence level that a major bird flu outbreak can be prevented from recurring? "I'm fairly confident," she says. "Iowa turkey farmers are doing everything they can. It's like the human flu or any other livestock disease in this regard. We can do the best we can with biosecurity practices. But we can't always stop the virus. We're only talking about the point of a pen, that's all the bigger you had to have of that flu virus in the poultry barns to infect the birds."
"Biosecurity practices are things we continue to work at, we continue to take precautions," says Irwin. "We continue educating farmers, getting them to use the best preventive methods they can, working hard to keep bird flu from happening again. But, as we know in agriculture, Mother Nature is ultimately in control."