Poultry farmers still recovering from flu

Nearly one year after a deadly avian flu reached South Dakota, the state's largest egg producer is still recovering. "It feels good to be back on our feet," said Jason Ramsdell, vice president of Dakota Layers in Flandreau, South Dakota's largest...

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Nearly one year after a deadly avian flu reached South Dakota, the state's largest egg producer is still recovering.

"It feels good to be back on our feet," said Jason Ramsdell, vice president of Dakota Layers in Flandreau, South Dakota's largest supplier of eggs.

A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza was discovered in Dakota Layers' flocks last spring, leading to the death of the company's 1.25 million chickens.

The virus was also found on nine turkey farms in eastern South Dakota, infecting 500,000 turkeys, according to State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven of the South Dakota Animal Industry Board.

The last case of avian influenza, or H5N2, in South Dakota was detected on May 28, 2015, Oedekoven said, but Dakota Layers wasn't able to purchase a new flock until November, after cleaning up and receiving clearance from the United States Department of Agriculture.


Since then, the egg producer has continued purchasing flocks from nearby states and now has about one-third the number of birds at the facility before the outbreak.

The turkey farms have been released from quarantine as well and are recovering. The first case of H5N2 in South Dakota was detected on March 30, Oedekoven said, meaning it only took the disease two months to cause the destruction of 1.75 million birds.

Oedekoven said the H5N2 virus was so deadly because it was a new strain that hadn't been seen before in the region, so there was no vaccine to protect poultry from contracting the disease.

"Being an influenza virus, you can think of it similarly to the human influenza viruses. They change quite frequently," Oedekoven said. "When birds from different areas are gathered together in their different migratory pathways or migratory locations, they exchange germs just like people do."

In the case of H5N2, North American birds interacted near the arctic with birds from China, Russia and Europe. The H5 component is considered a Eurasian type, and the N2 component is North American. The hybrid virus was easily spread but ultimately showed no danger to humans.

"It took off like the sniffles in a preschool class," Oedekoven said.

The H5N2 strain was easily passed around the region because although H5 and H7 strains are deadly to domestic poultry, they are typically not fatal in wild waterfowl, which are the typical carriers.

Oedekoven said South Dakota poultry farmers were more fortunate than those in states like Minnesota, where poultry farms are located more densely.


The H5N2 strain was also found on poultry farms in North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. About 223 flocks nationwide were afflicted by three strains of avian influenza last year, of which H5N2 was primary.

Fewer eggs

Naturally, South Dakota egg production took a dip in 2015. Egg-laying birds in South Dakota produced 603 million eggs in marketing year 2015, which began on Dec. 1, 2014, according to statistics from the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

South Dakota egg layers produced 752 million eggs in 2014 and 814 million in 2013. Between 667 and 698 million eggs were produced each year between 2010 and 2012.

Nationwide egg production followed a similar trend. The number of layers sharply declined last year from May to June when entire flocks around the nation were killed to prevent the spread of the virus.

Nationwide egg production followed suit, dropping from about 8.6 billion eggs in March to about 7.5 billion in June.

Oedekoven said he thought the price of eggs rose a little due to less supply, but prices of meat from turkeys and chickens actually dropped nationwide.

Although about 50 million birds were killed or died due to avian influenza, Oedekoven said, the supply of turkeys, for example, rose because international markets refused to buy them, causing the domestic supply to increase even though the total number of live poultry declined.


"It's kind of the opposite of what you might think with an outbreak like that," Oedekoven said.

Avian and swine flu outbreaks are always a concern because humans, birds and pigs can contract many of the same strains of influenza. Oedekoven said there are 16 H types and nine N types, making 144 potential combinations, and birds are susceptible to all of them. Humans and pigs are susceptible to fewer combinations.

Planning ahead

Oedekoven said there is no way of knowing whether H5N2 will pop up again, but a vaccine has been developed in case it does.

The South Dakota Animal Industry Board recommends that poultry farmers increase their biosecurity - the ability to prevent disease - by maintaining good sanitation and not wearing the same boots in waterfowl habitat and in the poultry farm. Oedekoven related the recommendations to people washing their hands or covering their mouth when they sneeze.

Oedekoven also tells farmers to watch out for higher illness or death rates in poultry and to contact their veterinarians or the Animal Industry Board if they see signs of influenza.

"One of the most important things about combating an outbreak is early detection and early response," Oedekoven said.

The Animal Industry Board has identified a few strains of avian influenza in wild birds in South Dakota, including some H5 and H7 types, but no strain has been identified as dominant.

Dakota Layers expects to be back at full capacity by the end of November. The first flock the company purchased came from Indiana, where a pathogenic H7 strain of avian influenza was recently discovered.

But the flock was purchased in November - a few months before the flu was discovered - from a farm that has no signs of influenza. Ramsdell said he doesn't expect another outbreak, but the possibility of a future outbreak is a concern.

"It's always a concern when something in the same state, that close to where our birds were growing, that there was any kind of chance that it might have spread, or even the simple fact that influenza is still out there and is still a possibility of getting into any facility," Ramsdell said.

Ramsdell said Dakota Layers will focus on ensuring its biosecurity protocols are "better than par" to ensure no disease enters the facility again.

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