WILLMAR, Minn. – With nearly 3 million turkeys normally born each month at Willmar Poultry’s hatchery, the chorus of chirping never ceases. Even for the bird flu.
Still, like the poultry industry as a whole, the lethal virus has left its mark here on one of the nation’s biggest turkey hatcheries. Production is currently down 20 percent because the flu hit the breeder farms that provide the eggs.
With fewer eggs in the system, Willmar is producing fewer poults — or baby turkeys — to ship to farms. So, it’s harder to restock after the H5N2 flu this spring erased 10 percent of Minnesota’s annual turkey production.
“Farmers are chomping at the bit to restock,” said Ben Wileman, director of global technical services for Willmar Poultry, an anchor of Minnesota’s turkey industry, which is the nation’s largest.
Not that farmers’ risk is gone. Animal health experts say there’s a good chance the bird flu will return as early as fall. But for poultry farmers, the risk of empty barns — and no income — is bigger than taking a chance of getting stung again.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s corn or soybeans or poultry, farmers are eternal optimists,” Wileman said. “If you aren’t, you won’t last that long.”
Indeed, since Minnesota’s last flu incident in early June, 39 of 108 stricken poultry farms have been repopulated with healthy birds, and 37 more have cleared the required regulatory hoops to do so. With new birds in place, turkey growers are trying to bolster biosecurity, aware their initial defenses fell short.
“What was normal biosecurity before didn’t keep this out of the barns,” said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
The industry and regulators also are working to better cope with thousands of birds dying at once, with more U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) equipment and workers ready to deploy. At the peak of the outbreak — the biggest in U.S. history — dying and dead turkeys sometimes lay in barns for a week to 10 days, increasing risks of the virus spreading.
“We just had so many flocks popping at the same time,” Olson said, disposal crews couldn’t keep up.
During the epidemic’s worst days, Wileman said it seemed he never left work at Willmar Poultry. “I slept in my office a lot. We were working seven days a week, 18 hours a day.”
The outbreak resulted in the deaths of 48 million birds, primarily in the Upper Midwest. Minnesota lost about 5 million turkeys and 4 million egg-laying hens. All but five of the stricken Minnesota farms raised turkeys. (Egg farms generally house far more birds.)
Willmar Poultry has been supplying the state’s turkey growers since 1945. Today, it’s the key division of a privately held turkey industry empire in Willmar called Life-Science Innovations, which also produces turkey feed and hatchery machinery. The company employs 1,000 in Minnesota alone.
Willmar Poultry claims 30 percent of the country’s turkey hatchery business, with five hatcheries in four states, including two in Minnesota. Eggs are trucked in from breeder farms directly owned by Willmar Poultry, as well as from contract farms.
The speckled eggs take about five weeks to hatch, time spent mostly in big incubators. Once the birds peck themselves free of their shells, they are separated by gender and shipped to turkey growers, all within a day.
All 15 of Willmar Poultry’s company-owned breeder farms in Minnesota were hit by the flu. Each farm produces more than 2 million eggs a month. That means more than 2 million birds that would have been sold to growers.
“We have lost a lot of money,” Wileman said.
And later this month, production will fall to 40 percent below capacity as the egg-cycle lag caused by the bird flu hits hardest.
The turkey industry’s entire poult delivery schedule has been gummed up, but not broken. Four of Willmar Poultry’s breeder barns have now been restocked.
“Growers have been able to get poults, but not always as many as they want, ” Olson said.
The biggest turkey grower in Minnesota — the Jennie-O division of Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods — has its own hatcheries and breeder farms. The flu hit only one of its breeder farms, and the company said its four hatcheries are operating normally.
Now Jennie-O, also the nation’s largest turkey processor, is steadily repopulating its farms with hundreds of thousands of new birds. The virus struck 52 of the company’s affiliated turkey production farms in Minnesota, and six more in Wisconsin.
More than half are now restocked, said Glenn Leitch, Jennie-O’s president. “We’re right on plan.”
Farmers making changes
Robert Orsten, a veteran turkey grower near Willmar, is on plan, too, albeit a post-disaster plan.
He and his brother own four breeder operations that supply Willmar Poultry. Orsten has about 45,000 turkey hens laying eggs at any given time.
One of their four barns got hit by the flu on April 24. A second was hit Memorial Day weekend — just when Orsten said he was “starting to relax a bit.”
With the two barns each down for over three months, Orsten’s production fell by one-third this year to about 3 million eggs. He said he and his brother will lose $400,000 to $500,000 in income.
One of Orsten’s farms was restocked just a week ago; the other won’t get new birds until fall. In the meantime, Orsten will be working on improving biosecurity at his farms.
Not that he and other turkey growers didn’t take precautions in the first place. Sunday family gatherings at Orsten’s mother’s house were canceled in early April because several relatives ran separate turkey farms. None of the growers wanted to get near each other for fear that one had been exposed to the virus.
At one of Orsten’s farms, he built enclosed walkways connecting two barns and an egg collection center. That project alone cost about $100,000, with financing help from his longtime local banker.
With enclosed walkways, Orsten is aiming to prevent his barns from being exposed to the outside environment. Farmers are also trying to seal up barns with new entry systems for workers and equipment. They’re working on air filtering, too, but stopping an airborne virus is particularly tough.
The bird flu is carried by wild waterfowl that don’t get sick themselves, but shed the virus in their feces. Scientists believe that the virus is tracked into barns via workers or equipment or that it goes airborne, wafting in on dust particles.
Preparing for fall
The flu arrived in early March in the Upper Midwest as waterfowl migrated north. With this fall’s southward migration, the poultry industry and animal health regulators are preparing for the virus’ possible return.
“I have a whole page of ‘lessons learned’ from the spring,” said Dr. William Hartmann, head of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. One of the biggest: “We need to have adequate equipment and trained people to depopulate a flock that is found positive [for flu] within 24 hours.”
After a flock is determined to be infected, all birds in it are killed to stop the virus’ spread. Disposal crews spray turkeys with a type of foam, which suffocates them. When the flu hit this spring, the state’s animal health board had one foaming machine on hand, part of its long-standing avian flu defense plan. But it wasn’t nearly enough.
The USDA, which coordinated flu response, brought in a second foamer. It still wasn’t enough. Finding enough contract workers for the disposal effort was a challenge, too.
This summer, the state bought another foaming system. Plus, the USDA now has four additional foamers in Eagan, Hartmann said.
Scientists say the lethal H5N2 flu could linger in the environment for a few years, continuing to pose a threat.
Yet for all of the flu’s current and potential grief, few growers have decided to quit the business.
After flu devastated his second farm, Orsten said he questioned the idea of sticking with turkeys. But only briefly.
“My brother and I were talking on the phone, and I said, ‘This is a pretty risky business, and if we are going to get out of it, now is the time.’ There was a little silence on the phone, and both of us started talking again and we said, ‘This is what we do.’ ”