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Northwest Minnesota turkey farmers up biosecurity measures as avian influenza cases rise in state

As of April 20, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health has reported that 50 commercial and backyard producer sites across Minnesota have been infected with H5N1 HPAI since the first cases in the state were detected on March 25.

A file photo of a commercial turkey flock.
As of April 20, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health has reported that 50 commercial and backyard producer sites across Minnesota have been infected with H5N1 HPAI since the first cases in the state were detected on March 25
File photo / U.S. Department of Agriculture
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VIKING, Minn. — While most cases of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza in Minnesota have been detected in central and southern parts of the state, turkey producers in northwest Minnesota are still concerned about the potential for transmission.

“It’s a really big stress factor,” said Steve Umber, who runs family operated Umber Turkeys in Viking, Minnesota. “I remember the last time it came through, we were stressed all year on it.”

As of April 20, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health has reported that 50 commercial and backyard producer sites across Minnesota have been infected with H5N1 HPAI since the first cases in the state were detected on March 25. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, there have been 11 infected commercial and backyard producer sites infected in North Dakota. APHIS estimates more than 2.28 million birds in Minnesota have been affected and more than 139,000 birds in North Dakota have been affected as of April 21.

Umber says he is following state and federal biosecurity recommendations, including reducing traffic on the farm, disinfecting equipment, changing boots and clothing when entering barns and keeping storage areas for bedding and feed clean and closed.

“Those are the biggest steps we can take. Other than that, you kind of hope for the best,” he said.

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In the last major avian influenza outbreak, in 2015, the flocks of Minnesota state Rep. John Burkel, a turkey farmer representing District 1A, contracted the virus. This year, he does not yet have any flocks at his farm near Badger, Minnesota, in part because of the ongoing legislative session, as well as the spread of bird flu.

“It’s traumatic at some level,” Burkel said about losing his flocks in 2015. “There are a lot of moving parts to it.”

Once a flock on a farm tests positive, the farm is quarantined, all birds are euthanized and the farm is disinfected and then tested to confirm it is free of the virus. Only then can a new flock be introduced.

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Birds on Burkel’s farm tested positive on April 13, 2015. He was able to repopulate on July 11 of that year.

“In a seasonal plant like ours, it ended up being like two-thirds of the year,” Burkel said.

Burkel still isn't sure how his flock contracted avian influenza.

“At some level it’s wild birds bringing it in, and then at some other level it’s tracked into the barn one way or the other, either through bedding materials or your shoes or clothing, maybe,” said Burkel. “That’s where a lot of the newer biosecurity protocols that are in place now to try to mitigate the spread have helped.”

On April 7, the Minnesota Legislature approved $1 million in emergency funding for testing materials and workforce for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. Burkel said there likely will be discussion about appropriating more state money in the coming weeks.

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Umber says that, generally, higher temperatures reduce the risk of birds contracting the virus.

“Hopefully, once this weather warms up, it’ll be a little less stressful. But it’s very worrisome for us, and we’re having to make sure there are a lot of added precautions as far as cleaning equipment and making sure that nothing is contaminated,” Umber said.

Related Topics: AVIAN FLUAGRICULTURE
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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