What to expect for the 2022 avian flu

As the COVID pandemic ebbs, another outbreak starts to flow into our bird populations. A highly pathogenic avian flu is spreading through commercial and backyard flocks. Identified in 24 states along the east coast and scattered in the mid-west, new rules are kicking in quickly to try and control the spread. Quarantine areas and restriction of poultry litter movement have been put in place in Maryland and Delaware and we can expect more of these to appear in the next weeks and months.

This year’s avian flu outbreak threatens to have a catastrophic impact on our poultry farms across the US. As of April 6, 2022 the USDA has confirmed the virus in 147 locations, affecting almost 24 million birds in commercial and backyard flocks. First found February 8 in Indiana, it has now reached as far west as Wyoming, but no farther south than North Carolina (yet).

South Dakota currently has the largest number of separate cases, with 31 confirmed instances. Iowa is reporting the highest number of birds in a single state impacted, with over thirteen million birds affected. Being the first state with confirmed cases, Indiana is now thankfully showing some positive trends, with some farms coming out of quarantine and no new cases reported across the state. For comparison’s sake, the last severe avian flu outbreak occurred between 2014-15 and covered only 15 states. The USDA confirmed over 200 cases in that outbreak, and 48 million birds were euthanized, total. This current outbreak is on track to break the records set seven years ago.

The best way to attack the avian flu is to prevent it. There is no vaccine; preventative measures are limited to keeping birds in a clean enclosure to prevent interaction with wild birds that are carriers. Once a flock is infected, there is no acceptable treatment; the response is a farm quarantine and euthanization of all exposed birds. Carcasses are usually disposed of in windrow-style in-house composting systems where the heat created by the composting process destroys the viruses.

Finding avian flu in a commercial flock is highly disruptive and can mean that the farm loses its product for months. Quarantines of enclosed houses last for a month after depopulation. In the case of pastured poultry, quarantines are effective for 120 days. No quarantine is lifted without an environmental test. Such a disruption in production is hard to recover from, and many farms shut down if impacted by the avian flu. Sadly, insurance isn’t a great option for poultry farmers facing this outbreak. Your insurance would have to have an additional rider for communicable diseases, which is often very expensive if even available. The FSA does administer the USDA’s Livestock Indemnity Program to cover the losses attributable to euthanized poultry.

Keep in mind that quarantines can extend to the byproducts of poultry—litter and eggs for hatching. Maryland’s Department of Agriculture has issued a restriction on moving poultry litter in four counties impacted by the avian flu, enforced with fines up to $10,000.00. A second order in Maryland also restricts the transportation of hatching eggs and poultry within the most impacted county in the state. No other states have taken this step yet.

Remaining resilient in the face of unpredictable problems with no good solutions or safety nets is a big challenge. If you have poultry, it is an excellent time to visit your local Extension office to learn what signs to look for and how to report sick birds—plan for how you would handle it if you noticed a sick bird in your flock. Next, call your insurance company and ask about communicable disease coverage. Our new food safety liability insurance guide will be helpful here. Though not about livestock diseases, this guide walks you through how to read an insurance policy step-by-step. It would be beneficial to look over it before calling your insurance company. Also ask your agent about income loss coverage; the USDA indemnity program does not pay for those losses so you need to know if you can get coverage of those losses elsewhere.

Other than being aware of quarantine and euthanasia rules, there are several other legalities and potential pitfalls to keep in mind. For example, in Wisconsin, neighbors of the farm that had to destroy their three million chickens are starting to raise concerns about the impact of carcass composting on groundwater and air quality. As you make your contingency plan for how you would respond, think through all steps (from detection to disposal) to anticipate potential problems.