Waterfowl — believed to be the ultimate source of bird flu — are heading south for the winter, and Minnesota turkey farmers are crossing their fingers. Consumers should be, too.
With the bird flu ravaging the Upper Midwest’s poultry industry in the spring, prices for turkey meat are soaring, and egg prices are high, too.
There’s no quick end in sight.
Turkey production won’t be back to normal until next spring, and the egg industry will take even longer to catch up, meaning a return of the bird flu — which would likely coincide with waterfowl migration — would be a big blow.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed, my eyes crossed and my hair crossed that we miss this thing,” said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
5 million turkeys wiped out
In the spring, the bird flu wiped out 5 million turkeys in Minnesota, about 10 percent of production in the nation’s largest turkey-growing state. Turkey farms in Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin were hit hard, too. And Iowa’s egg industry, the nation’s largest, lost at least 40 percent of its production capacity — almost 25 million hens.
In response, wholesale egg prices in the Midwest shot up, peaking in August when they were twice what they were a year earlier, according to data from Urner Barry, a commodity news service known as an authority on poultry pricing. While wholesale egg prices have since fallen, they are still 42 percent higher than a year ago.
Turkey wholesale prices are at all-time highs, said Russ Whitman, a vice president at the New Jersey-based Urner Barry. At the same time, “stocks of just about everything in the turkey industry — except dark meat — are at record lows.”
Wholesale turkey breasts from male birds — the main source of lunch meat and scores of other turkey products — are up 42 percent over a year ago.
Whole-bird prices have increased steeply, too. So while the industry is not expecting a turkey shortage at Thanksgiving, consumers will likely face higher prices.
The H5N2 strain of highly pathogenic avian flu touched down in early March in Minnesota and struck 108 farms, 103 of them turkey operations. Only five chicken farms were hit, but they housed far more birds than turkey operations, so about 4 million hens died in Minnesota.
Ninety Minnesota poultry operations have signed “restocking agreements” with the state’s Board of Animal Health, pacts necessary to put new birds in barns. Exact data on how many farms have been restocked weren’t available, but Olson said most farms have new birds.
Still, some are waiting for baby turkeys as the breeding end of the turkey business also was hit hard.
“Bird supplies are tight,” Olson said. “We’re not at full capacity on the breeding side, yet we have an increase in demand from farms coming online. We’re out of balance.”
Olson said he expects all of the state’s turkey farms to be back in business by year’s end. Still, because of the length of the birds’ growing cycle, turkey industry output won’t be back to normal until at least the end of 2016’s first quarter, if not the middle of the year.
All the estimates assume the bird flu doesn’t return this fall.
Scientists believe avian flu is spread by ducks and other waterfowl who carry the bug but don’t get sick from it. The bird flu took off in Minnesota as waterfowl migrated north last spring.
Waterfowl feces appear to have been tracked into farms by people, equipment and even rodents. Scientists also concluded that the virus may have gone airborne via dust particles. Plus, the poultry industry’s biosecurity wasn’t adequate to stop the bug’s spread.
Warm weather is thought to kill the bug, and indeed Minnesota has not had a reported outbreak since June 5. But bird health experts and the turkey industry have feared the flu could resurface as waterfowl migrate south and temperatures fall. And while a bird flu vaccine is in the works, it’s unlikely to be available this fall.
Blue-winged teal and wood ducks started migrating in August, and the majority of them have already left the state, said Steve Cordts, a waterfowl specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But geese and mallard ducks are later migrants.
Despite scientific agreement on waterfowl’s role in carrying bird flu, evidence directly from birds in Minnesota hasn’t yielded answers about the virus’ spread.
Since the outbreak, the DNR has been steadily monitoring waterfowl for signs of H5N2 bird flu, including collecting 3,100 fecal samples. The agency also has tested at least 2,000 more ducks and geese through its regular banding programs. And its been collecting samples from ducks bagged by hunters since the season began Sept. 26th.
“We have done a lot of surveillance, and have not really found anything yet,” said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s wildlife research manager.
State animal health regulators have beefed up their bird flu defenses since the outbreak.
The Board of Animal Health has hired 10 people, including veterinarians and agricultural specialists, using money ponied up by the state legislature this spring to fight bird flu. The state also has added more equipment to quickly euthanize turkeys on stricken farms.
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. But the state had only one foaming machine last spring. The U.S. Department of Agriculture brought in a second, but workers still couldn’t keep up with the barns. During the outbreak’s peak, birds just died from the flu and sometimes sat for a week or more before the disposal process began, a hazard for further spread of the virus.
Now, Minnesota has two foaming machines and is building four more. And the USDA has several more ready to go in Eagan.
“It’s unpredictable whether [the bird flu] will come or not,” said William Hartmann, head of the Board of Animal Health. “But we are prepared for it to come.”