In Wake of Avian Flu Case, Iowa Turkey Farmers Focus on Bio Security

Apr 15, 2015

Yesterday a strain of avian flu called H5N2 was confirmed on a commercial turkey farm in Buena Vista County. As those 27,000 birds are euthanized, the other roughly 130 turkey farmers around the state are taking bio security measures to ensure their farms avoid the same fate.

H5N2 presents a minimal risk to humans. It creates no food safety concerns but is financially devastating to farmers because once the virus is detected in even one bird the entire flock is eradicated.

"Everyone is just making sure that they have clean boots for every barn, that their clothing is clean, that they're washing everything before it goes into the barn. And making sure that farm equipment is not shared. And making sure it's sanitized before it goes in and out," says Sheila Larson of the Iowa Turkey Federation. "It is difficult and it takes a lot of time, but that's what needs to be done."

As for the flock infected with the virus, Larson says it will be a year before the farmer is back in production. The National Poultry Improvement Plan will provide some payment for the euthanized birds.

The virus is spread by migrating waterfowl, which are generally not affected by the disease. H5N2 kills within hours of a turkey or chicken first showing symptoms. 

While chickens are caged individually, turkey flocks are kept in large pens making them more susceptible to H5N2. The open, communal environment of a turkey pen makes birds more likely to come into contact with the virus.

There is a chance that the Buena Vista turkey flock may be the only confirmed instance of H5N2 in Iowa.

“I shouldn’t say there is no chance at all. But with the current bio security measures…probably the chance would be low,” says Kyoung Jin Yoon, a veterinarian at Iowa State University who specializes in diagnostics and animal production. “Yet when I look at what’s happening in Minnesota, it continues...so it’s hard to tell at the moment.”

In Minnesota 22 cases of H5N2 have been identified by the United States Department of Agriculture. Yoon says it’s possible that’s because the Land of 10,000 Lakes has larger numbers of migrating waterfowl.

Regarding industry-wide impact, so far there haven't been enough infected flocks to affect supply. Internationally, however, countries are placing import-bands on poultry from U.S. states where H5N2 has been detected.

"That will impact our prices here domestically, we'll have more supplies on the domestic market and that could soften product here," says Lee Schultz, a livestock economist at Iowa State University.

The USDA reports that 11 million head of turkeys were produced in Iowa last year. The Iowa turkey industry focuses on deli meat production, as opposed to entire Thanksgiving-type birds.

In addition to Minnesota, since January 2015 the USDA says H5N2 has been confirmed in commercial and backyard flocks in Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Montana, Washington, Oregon and California. The majority of these flocks were turkey, some were chicken and one pheasant.