An outbreak of a particularly nasty strain of bird flu in the Midwest has led to the destruction of more than 46 million chickens and turkeys and has Georgia farmers and agricultural officials worried the disease could come home to roost here.
For Georgia, the nation’s largest poultry producer, the threat is no joke. Broilers — fully grown chickens — had a $4.7 billion impact on the state’s economy in 2012, while an additional $1 billion came from eggs and “pullets,” or young chickens.
While the state Department of Agriculture believes there is cause for concern in Georgia, officials say the biggest threat won’t likely come until the fall, when migratory birds start heading south and — possibly — bring the virus with them. In the meantime, state officials and the Georgia Poultry Federation are working with farmers to take precautions, including re-emphasizing the need for biosecurity measures such as limiting visitors and making sure chicken houses are sealed to keep out strange birds.
“I’m not supposed to have anybody out here that is not involved with the company,” said Johnathan Burns, a Carroll County farmer who raises chickens for a major poultry producer. “It’s why you want everybody to stay off your farm. (It’s ) not to be rude.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has detected more than 200 cases of the “highly pathogenic avian influenza H5” that has affected nearly 47 million birds since first being spotted in December. Most of the cases have been in Iowa and Minnesota, but the disease has spread as far south as Arkansas. It also has spread to California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.
While the outbreak has devastated farms in the Midwest, it has also caused egg prices to spike in parts of the country. Some states, including Iowa, have reported a 17 percent increase in the price of a dozen eggs. Federal data, however, show prices have actually dropped slightly in the past year across the South, including in Georgia.
Slaughter is only effective weapon
The USDA says existing vaccines won’t do enough to help, so the only recourse is mass slaughter of infected birds.
That’s a terrifying thought, Burns said.
“It’s all the farmers at risk,” he said. “We’re the ones (that are) going to get truly hammered if it was to hit this area and we were to have to shut down for a while.”
Mike Giles, the president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said he hopes it doesn’t come to that. But, he said, Georgians likely won’t know until cool weather returns in the fall and migratory flocks head south for winter.
“The conventional wisdom is that the outbreak should slow down during the hot weather,” Giles said. “The virus tends to not survive as well in hot conditions, but it’s likely to be circulating in wild birds that are water fowl and other birds in the North right now.”
Migratory birds tend to follow one of three major flyways each fall: the Midwest, Mississippi or Atlantic. Georgia is in the Atlantic flyway while birds in most of the states now affected by the avian flu use the Midwest or Mississippi flyways. That means there’s a chance infected birds won’t come here at all, Giles said.
“But birds up there cross over and come down different paths sometimes,” he said.
Precautions now for threat in fall
Julie McPeake, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, said the agency is using the summer to prepare for a potential outbreak.
That includes a strong dose of education and reminders to farmers and others on the need for proper biosecurity.
The avian flu, Giles said, spreads in a way similar to a human virus.
“You shake someone’s hand and then touch your face — it’s a mechanical transfer,” he said.
“The main thing is to keep any diseases or anything that can harm the chickens, first, off the farm and, more importantly, outside the chicken house,” Giles said. “Some of the things from a practical standpoint, you’re talking about limiting visitors to the farm, making sure that any visitors to the farm, if they have to visit the farm, didn’t visit another farm just previous to that.”
Visitors should wear protective coverings over their feet. Farmers must take care when sharing equipment and should avoid areas where wild birds congregate, such as ponds on farm property.
“The best management practices and biosecurity practices are relatively simple things,” Giles said. “The kinds of things that humans do to keep from catching a virus – limiting exposure and making sure things you touch are clean and your hands and feet are clean — but you’re applying those principles to the farm.”
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