Farm Horizons, April 2016

Producers hatch recovery in the wake of avian flu outbreak

By Bruce Strand, Correspondent

Minnesota poultry farms are well on their way to recovering from the avian flu epidemic that staggered the industry here and in neighboring states last summer.

“They have all re-stocked or have started to re-stock, since about two months ago,” reports Dr. Beth Thompson of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health (MBAH), adding that now that farmers know the dangers, they are “really working hard on a daily basis on bio-security measures to keep the disease out of their barns, or to keep the disease from walking out of their barns.”

The virus – officially HPAI, or highly pathogenic avian influenza – hit Minnesota in the first half of the year, with the first reported case March 5, 2015 and the final one June 5, 2015, infecting a total of 104 turkey farms and four chicken farms.

Turkey producers lost hundreds of millions of dollars and 5.5 million birds (about 10 percent of the number typically raised annually). Rep. Collin Peterson reported in September 2015 that more than $170 million in wages for 2,500 jobs were lost, while the impact on the state economy was estimated at $650 million.

All 108 farms infected were reported to be completely cleaned, disinfected, and cleared to restock their barns with poultry, the MBAH announced in early December 2015. The board continues to work with government officials and poultry farmers and executives to watch for new outbreaks.

Minnesota is the nation’s leader in turkey production, with approximately 450 farms raising about 46 million birds annually. This state was mainly affected in turkey operations, while Iowa was hit hard in its egg operations, Thompson said, resulting in the decrease of around 20 percent in eggs available.

While only four chicken operations were affected in Minnesota, they were all massive, causing a sharp decrease in birds, noted Nathaniel Taylor of Forsman Farms, a local producer whose facility was not hit.

Currently there are nine million chickens in all of Minnesota, after some restocking, compared to 11.4 million before the outbreak, according to Minnesota Board of Animal Health. In Iowa, where they had 58 million chickens, they’re at 37 million now.

“There was a wild swing in egg prices nationwide,” said Taylor. “The cheapest eggs are in the Midwest.”

A manager at Marketplace in Cokato noted: “There was an uptick in prices for a while, I think engineered by egg producers, but they have dropped the last couple months. In fact, we had a sale on them recently. The supply is plentiful, and it’s a non-issue now.”

A New York Times report on chicken farms in Iowa in May said this was the first such large-scale crisis in the US, although farmers in Asia and elsewhere have grappled with avian flu epidemics. The virus seemed to follow migratory bird pathways from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest, the Times reported.

Stricken farms were hit hard, not only financially, but emotionally, as well.

“Most did not understand what was happening, where the virus came from,” Thompson said. “The disease was so deadly it was unbelievable. It’s not like human flu. With the avian flu, the vast majority die within three to five days. It was really hard for the producers, because this is what they do, every day, from the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night.”

After avian flu struck one operation after another, the price of eggs soared through the second half of 2015 before starting to come back down in January. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts an average price for large eggs of $1.66 a dozen in 2016, a decrease from the 2015 average of $1.84, but higher than the $1.42 average in 2014, before the avian flu outbreak.

The USDA report on Minnesota’s chicken and egg industry showed that January production was 226 million eggs, down 22 percent from last year, and down 1 percent from December 2015. The number of layers in the state in January was 9.46 million, down 20 percent from last year but slightly above December 2015.

The retail price increase of eggs from June to December was anywhere from 24 to 51 percent higher than the same month in 2014, before stabilizing in January, according to Maro Ibarburu, a scientist and business analyst for eggs at Iowa State University. The price of large white eggs “delivered to the store door in the Midwest” was, she said, starting in May, up anywhere from 31 percent to 110 percent over 2014, before getting back near normal levels in December and beyond.

The avian flu outbreak affected some local organizations, as well as consumers.

For example, eggs donated to the Lester Prairie Lions in recent years have helped the club raise funds with pancake breakfasts, but the free eggs were not available for their last two fundraisers. Michael Foods, one of the four Minnesota chicken operations where avian flu struck, had been donating eggs from its plant in Gaylord, but had to beg off in September and January.

“We were getting the equivalent of about 45 dozen eggs; this egg product was already scrambled and mixed with buttermilk,” said Lion Lloyd Wortz. He noted that the club still conducted its pancake breakfasts after buying eggs locally.

“Michael Foods has told us that they hope to continue donations sometime, but no date has been mentioned. We will try again this fall, asking for a donation,” Wortz added.

Ten poultry operations were hit in Meeker County last year, but none in Wright, McLeod, or Carver counties, said Thompson.

Information from MPR, WATTAgNet, and the StarTribune was included in this article.

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