Several people have asked about the ongoing 2022 outbreak of Avian Influenza, so this is something I want to discuss, both as it affects the larger agricultural system and as it affects us here on our tiny little corner of the poultry world.
I’ll start with an overview of the disease, but if you already know all about the HPAI virus, skip the following background info (I put that text into a collapsible section below) and continue on to the discussion about the implications.
Background Info on the Disease, Detection, and Regulatory Response
Avian Influenza is a broad category term for any flu virus that infects birds. The ones we’re discussing here are H5 and H7, two specific varieties of influenza. It is often simply abbreviated as HPAI, for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. The “highly pathogenic” designation is epidemiological-speak for a disease that causes high death rates among infected birds.
The virus infects a wide range of birds, everywhere on the size scale from the small passerines up through eagles. It does seem to be disproportionately found among wild ducks and geese, as well as the raptor species that hunt them or scavenge their carcasses. It can affect all domesticated poultry, but turkeys seem to be the hardest hit. Among chickens, laying hens have been more susceptible than broilers. The specific mechanisms by which certain classes of birds resist infection remain unknown.
Symptoms of HPAI include sudden death for many infected birds. For others that are able to mount a more robust immune response, typical flu symptoms include lethargy, runny nostrils, coughing, diarrhea, and swelling, so this is about what any person who has experienced a flu would expect.
Determining the exact infection and mortality rates remains challenging. In some confined poultry flocks, the infection rates have exceeded 90%, but in other cases the numbers are much lower, even among confined flocks where the disease spread potential is highest.
After the 2014 outbreak, the USDA initiated a measuring program to sample the disease prevalence in wild birds. Looking at the wild bird infection data available, it is obvious that there are severe problems in the measurement methodology. The reporting depends on wildlife officials, hikers, and hunters collecting samples of diseased or dead wild birds. Some states have the majority of their numbers collected and reported on one day in one location. At this point, nobody has a clear idea on the rate of infection or the rate of mortality in the wild bird population.
HPAI and Humans
It should be stressed that HPAI, while harmful to birds, is not effective at jumping over to humans. Some people have been infected with this HPAI, but it doesn’t seem to be the kind of virus that has potential for turning into a human pandemic. So, in a world with warning lights flashing all over the control panel, it doesn’t seem likely that we need to add fear of a human outbreak to the list of panic. But it still is a serious issue for the birds themselves.
It is also important to note that safe cooking temperatures for poultry are sufficient to inactivate the influenza virus, were any eggs, chickens, or turkeys to enter the food supply.
Unlike other diseases, HPAI is a reportable disease. This means that if a farm detects a suspicious shift in flock health or a sudden die-off, it must be reported to the USDA. After that, the farm is quarantined, and all farms within several miles are put into a larger quarantine buffer. The USDA and various state agencies will kill all poultry on the farm, regardless of their infection status. Infected poultry and any eggs from those birds must be destroyed and either buried or composted. Then the housing must be sanitized and checked before new poultry are permitted to return to the farm.
Implications for Pasture Raised versus for Conventional Confinement
At the top of the list of vulnerabilities for pasture raised poultry, we recognize that our chickens and turkeys live outdoors, and therefore they are in closer contact with wild birds. The standard advice from the USDA and agricultural colleges recommends confining poultry in fully encapsulated environments, with strict decontamination protocols for everyone entering or exiting the building. They assume that confined poultry are safer.
The reality is more complicated. If pasture raised chickens are exposed to fresh droppings from an infected wild bird, that exposure follows an obvious path if it leads to an infection. But consider that the USDA has killed more than 20 million chickens and turkeys this year on farms where outbreaks were detected. Nearly the entire number were confinement poultry.
Pasture raised poultry represents a vanishingly small fraction of the poultry industry. The risks of exposure appear to be higher. The risk of spread within the flock seems to be lower due to the disinfecting power of sunlight and air movement, and also to the increased area allocated to each bird. The reduced risk of spread is rendered moot however, as external and internal immunity is not a consideration for the government agencies. They kill off all birds on the farm regardless of disease status once the initial outbreak is detected.
The larger confinement industry ostensibly does a better job of protecting poultry from the disease by keeping them indoors. But the confinement model also exposes birds to increased risk whenever a virus enters a facility. The standard biosecurity advice is for poultry workers to disinfect boots, and preferably to wear dedicated clothing, whenever entering the building. The virus can be carried in on garments, so basic entry/exit hygiene makes sense.
But rodents are a significant, and largely ungovernable vector for the disease. Even with trapping and poisons, all poultry facilities will have some rodent population. This is inevitable. With thousands of feet of building perimeters, and hundreds of tons of desirable grain stored on site, rats and mice will find a way in. Given their travel patterns between indoors and outdoors, these unwanted visitors can transport the virus on their fur, and bring the infection to the birds. This vulnerability remains as an unaccountable risk factor, as all the best efforts at worker hygiene can be undermined by furry pests.
Consider the infectious potential for a virus that lands inside one of these confinement barns. Instead of sunlight’s UV destroying it, or fresh air desiccating it, the virus has landed in a most agreeable situation. It is safe in a warm, damp, dimly lit place where it can remain protected and viable. And, depending on the scale of the operation, it is in fortuitously close proximity to a large number of hosts. Typical confinement poultry farms are stocked at numbers between thirty thousand and several million potential targets, depending on the class of poultry and the number of barns. This is a viral field day.
Regardless of the farming model, both pasture raised and confinement poultry are facing risks, and ultimately you, the consumer, are too. The food system is vulnerable to disruptions from avian influenza.
Pasture raised poultry builds in levels of resiliency, with inherently distributed production as the farms are necessarily smaller. So the individual points of failure are smaller. But still it would be a private catastrophe to actually be one of those individual points of failure.
If our farm were to acquire the disease, or if we were to be caught up in a larger quarantine area because of another farm nearby, we would stand to lose all or most of a season’s worth of production. The financial losses directly associated with losing the birds would be devastating. But I suspect the loss of saleable products would be worse. If we didn’t have anything to sell for the next year, how would our farm business survive? Would we still have customers sticking around until the next pasture season when we could restock?
As we see all around us with supply chain disruptions, human pandemics, inflation, and warfare all churning our world into upheaval, nothing can safeguard us from all harm. We can only choose the most appropriate harm-mitigation strategies as we understand our vulnerabilities.
As we think about this disease, we are trying to determine the best way to proceed. Here are the ways we’re addressing our vulnerabilities:
- Build on health. As we’ve seen with COVID and all other diseases, preexisting illness and comorbidities are nature’s way of rolling out the welcome mat for new infections. So we’ve been working to ensure that our birds are in top form this season. We already provide them with lots of elbow room, but we’ve decided to increase the amount of pasture area allocated to each chicken and turkey this year, just to ensure that they all have plenty of opportunity to thrive on pasture.
- Minimize exposure to wild birds. We already have this one under control, or rather our guard dogs do. We cannot prevent errant bird droppings from falling onto our pastures, but the dogs are vigilant about discouraging wild birds from landing in the fenced-in area around our poultry. The dogs don’t differentiate aerial friends from foes, so they chase off all of the geese, eagles, hawks, owls, and crows that might otherwise be hanging around our flocks.
- Maintain biosecurity standards. We’re trying to distinguish between meaningful efforts and “hygiene theater”. We’ve identified the most likely sources for disease transfer between our farm and other poultry farms. Our exposure is probably greatest at the small poultry slaughterhouse we work with because of the number of different farms all traveling there. So we’ve set aside dedicated boots to be worn whenever we visit that location. We also purchased a (shockingly expensive) hot water pressure washer to disinfect the trailer and the transport crates.
- Visitor limits. We decided to limit our exposure to farm visitors. This is a challenging balancing act, because openness and transparency remain central to our values. We still welcome visitors who do not have poultry at home. If a visitor who owns or works with poultry still wishes to see our farm, we can arrange with that person to ensure that they can disinfect their gear on arrival. This year our county is hosting a farm tour where people travel from farm to farm seeing the different operations, but due to the other chicken farms on the list, we decided it is probably best to sit this one out.
Ain’t Nothin’ Easy
Simple and obvious answers only work for simple and obvious people. Because we’re engaged in the complex intersection of our farm’s ecology with its economy, because we’re somewhat removed from the larger poultry industry while being inevitably tied back into it, because we’re ultimately both freed by and constrained by our direct-to-customer sales model, choosing any path forward is tricky.
We can only do what we judge to be wisest at the moment. I find that freeing. I don’t need to hold myself accountable for all future outcomes. I just need to work on being a good pastured poultry farmer based on what I understand today.