Hobbyists urged to take precautions to prevent avian influenza
Chris Allen of Fresh Branch Farm in Chesterfield County, Va., keeps a closer eye on her flock since a strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza has been detected in North America for the first time since 2016.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the virus, known as HPAI, in waterfowl in the Carolinas and Virginia in January, and in a backyard poultry flock in Fauquier County in February. The risk is greater for commercial poultry growers and by mid-February, the state veterinarian’s office had increased biosecurity protocols for chicken and turkey farms.
While Virginia’s commercial poultry growers routinely implement high levels of biosecurity, smaller poultry producers and hobbyists are encouraged to step up those practices as well.
About 80 free-range hens forage in Allen’s backyard, and she sells the fresh eggs locally.
“It’s a time and money investment I don’t want to lose, so I’m always careful with biosecurity,” she says. “They can sometimes pick up respiratory diseases, worms or mites. But avian influenza is one I don’t want to deal with.”
Though it poses relatively low risk to human health, the virus is transmitted easily from wild birds to domestic poultry if flock owners don’t take action to keep their birds safe.
The Allens have taken precautions, such as leaving bird feeders that attract wild birds unfilled and wearing designated farm shoes on the farm property. “And I’m very careful about washing my clothes and changing shoes when I travel to someone else’s farm who has chickens — which we’re not doing at all right now,” she adds.
Keeping a flock safe and preventing HPAI’s spread comes down to commonsense measures, says Robert Mills, who farms in Pittsylvania County and chairs the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Poultry Advisory Committee. Mills raises poultry for Perdue Foods.
It’s wise to limit guests from any area where poultry live, including backyard chicken coops, Mills advises.
Waterfowl droppings can be tracked from areas where game birds congregate, such as ponds, golf courses and parking lots. Hunters and others who encounter waterfowl should do their best to avoid poultry areas, or clean and disinfect equipment, clothing and shoes to remove feces, feathers and litter before going near a flock. Disease pathogens can survive for months inside those organic materials.
Warning signs of HPAI in birds include sudden mortality, reduced feed intake, reduced egg production, misshapen eggs, swelling of the face and hocks, sneezing, coughing and nasal discharge.
Tony Banks, Virginia Farm Bureau senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation, says quarantines, additional disease monitoring and heightened sanitation go into effect once avian flu is officially identified in poultry.
He recalled a different, low-pathogenic avian influenza outbreak that caused significant losses for Virginia poultry farmers in 2002, affecting more than 140 farms.
“Virginia’s poultry industry lost millions of dollars in sales and were shut out of export markets,” Banks says. “This outbreak led to increased emphasis among the USDA and states to conduct avian influenza surveillance and monitoring, which continues today.”