Avian influenza or "bird flu" continues to cause havoc for Iowa poultry producers. The deadly virus has struck a number of Iowa's large egg-laying operations and turkey flocks since it first showed up in Iowa in mid-April. Most of the counties where infected flocks have been found are in northwest Iowa.
When a farmer's chickens or turkeys become sick, veterinarians have some of the birds tested by USDA. Once the H5N2 virus is confirmed on a poultry farm, the birds are destroyed to prevent spread of the disease to nearby facilities. In Iowa, the situation is leaving a lot of dead birds for producers to get rid of in a safe, sanitary manner.
Poultry producers may be getting some help in disposing of the more than 20 million chickens, turkeys and ducks infected by the virus in Iowa during the past three weeks, state officials said last week.
Large number of dead chickens and turkeys raise disposal issues
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has issued three temporary permits to a Massachusetts company that would allow it to set up large portable incinerators in Sioux, Kossuth and Cherokee counties to help in disposal of several million infected birds that have died from the disease or have been euthanized to prevent its spread.
A fourth permit for another incinerator is possible, depending on the need, according to Iowa DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins.
Clean Harbors, based in Norwell, Mass., is the company that's been contracted by USDA to transport and dispose of the dead birds. Clean Harbors also sought and received air emission permits from Iowa DNR to operate three incinerators. The company is a national provider of environmental, energy and industrial services.
Landfill operators are hesitant to accept so many dead birds
The permits are being granted as some landfill operators are uncertain if they'll accept the dead birds, fearing contamination. Last week six more bird flu cases were announced by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. One case was a backyard flock of ducks in O'Brien County. The rest of the outbreaks were large commercial egg-laying operations and a pullet farm with young hens, all in Sioux County. All of these locations are quarantined. These six latest outbreaks increase to 34 the number of chicken, turkey and duck flocks infected with H5N2 virus.
The 34 infested flocks discovered so far are in 11 counties. Most of the facilities are commercial operations in northwest Iowa, and most are egg laying facilities. One large egg producing operation where bird flu has been confirmed is in Madison County in central Iowa.
Producers are euthanizing infected poultry, and DNR is encouraging landfills to accept some of the millions of birds that have died or been destroyed to help contain the disease. In a letter to state landfill operators sent last week, Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey say producers need all the disposal options available, given the unprecedented volume of infected birds. The options include landfill burial, on-site burial at the farm, composting and incineration.
Disposal methods landfill, on-site burial, composting, incineration
"This disease will ultimately result in tens of millions of dead chickens and turkeys," wrote Gipp and Northey in the letter. "The birds need to be disposed of in a way that protects the environment and prevents spread of the disease," they say.
Local leaders in northwest Iowa are hesitating to accept some of the 9.7 million birds that have been infected in the counties the agency serves: Sioux, O'Brien, Osceola, Clay and Lyon. So far, all but Lyon have infected commercial poultry barns. Several operations struggling with the disease are using on-site disposal.
For example, Sunrise Farm in Osceola County has composted about 2 million hens so far, of about 3.4 million hens infected. And Rembrandt Enterprises, which is the nation's largest outbreak of nearly 5.7 million laying hens, also is composting its dead chickens. A facility in Kossuth County plans to bury 18,791 infected birds. The state DNR is giving them guidance on where to do that to avoid contaminating water supplies or creating other environmental concerns. Another concern is whether hauling and disposing birds infected with H5N2 could infect poultry operations located near the landfill.
How does this disease spread? Answer remains unknown
USDA and other federal agencies haven't been able to determine how bird flu is spreading since it was first discovered five months ago. It is spreading despite increased biosecurity efforts such as changing clothes and boots before entering barns, and disinfecting equipment and vehicles. "We know this virus is spreading but we don't know how," says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.
Scientists believe the virus is spread by migratory birds such as ducks and geese that leave their droppings on farms. Also, some speculate that farmworkers are unknowingly carrying bird flu, or it is spread with dust or bird feathers blown by wind.
Northey and other state and federal officials emphasize that health experts consider the risk to people from the H5N2 bird flu virus to be low. So far, no human infections with this virus have been detected and there is no food safety risk for consumers.
Biosecurity requirements must be followed for dead bird disposal
Biosecurity is tight around birds and facilities where bird flu virus has been confirmed, says Baskins. The dead birds are placed in large "Bio-Zip" bags that decrease the time it takes to compost them, as temperatures in the bags climb high enough to also kill the virus. Veterinarians say the virus doesn't live long if it doesn't have a living host such as birds. He says the dead birds in the bag are required to sit for three days so high temperatures in the bag will kill the virus before the bags are moved.
Landfills are required to follow certain biosecurity protocols such as segregating dead birds and immediately burying them, says Baskins. Also, trucks must be disinfected before leaving landfill sites.