Poultry Farmers Take ‘Biosecurity’ Measures as Bird Flu Makes Contact in R.I.
August 5, 2022
Maybe it’s a matter of geography; maybe it’s the diligence of local farmers and veterinarians. Or maybe it’s a touch of protective chauvinism in the only state whose official bird’s name — the dazzling Rhode Island red — includes the name of the state itself.
Whatever the reason, the bird flu — officially the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — has touched down only once in Rhode Island this season, in a great black-backed gull found in mid-July in South Kingstown.
Rhode Island is the last New England state to identify a flu-infected bird and one of 38 states to document infected birds since late winter. As of July 29, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), bird flu touched down in 38 states in 400 flocks, with 40 million birds affected.
When a sick bird is identified as a “confirmed diagnosis,” all birds in the immediate area — be it a commercial chicken farm or a backyard flock — must be humanely killed, by law, under USDA rules and oversight.
A USDA map of the United States shows the extent of infection in tints of green, from light to dark. Iowa stands out like a dark bulls-eye in the center of the country. For a bit of perspective, on a single date in mid-March, 5.3 million egg-producing chickens were killed in one Iowa county, according to the USDA.
In New England, only backyard flocks, not commercial farms, have been impacted, with numbers of affected birds ranging from Rhode Island’s one dead gull to 913 birds in Maine, which also was the site of a seal infected with bird flu.
Apart from poultry farmers and backyard bird hobbyists, the official front line of defense is state veterinarians, who work closely with the USDA and its animal protection arm, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIA).
Scott Marshall, Rhode Island’s state veterinarian, said the flu arrives in wild birds, which carry it but don’t die from it. Migratory flyways along the East Coast and west of the Appalachians are highways for the disease, which was first spotted, in the current season, in late winter in Canada, Marshall said.
Like COVID — a hard-to-avoid comparison — bird flu is passed by droplets in the birds’ breath, and also through feces.
Marshall admitted to a reluctant, shivery satisfaction when he quoted a USDA colleague’s succinct summary of the threat: “These are little eco bombs of virus falling from the sky when the birds migrate.”
Marshall said weapons to defend flocks come under the heading of “biosecurity” and mostly require that bird farmers and keepers limit contact between their birds and wild birds. This can be a special challenge for backyard bird keepers, whose birds might move about openly and use farm ponds visited by wild or migrating birds.
Other security measures include keeping birds in covered coops, protecting food and water dishes — from the threat of fecal-to-oral contact — not introducing new birds into a flock, and limiting the number of people, including farmworkers and visitors, who may enter farms and coops.
All states, including the six in New England working as a group through the New England States Animal Agricultural Security Alliance, have strict rules for moving birds to and from commercial farms. These rules have been enhanced for the movement of birds — particularly between states — for the summer and fall farm exhibit season.
In addition to veterinarians and USDA experts, no one is more conscious of the need to protect flocks than commercial poultry growers.
Donald Baffoni is part of the third generation of a four-generation family business, Baffoni’s Poultry Farm, in Johnston. Small by Iowa standards, but large among poultry farms in Rhode Island, Baffoni’s farm has about 20,000 birds, which it raises for eggs and for meat. The farm also kills, processes, and packages chickens for scores of smaller growers in Rhode Island.
Below a large, bright mural showing a handsome rooster and the date 1935 on one of the buildings on his property, Baffoni guides a visitor through several enclosed coops. He pulls up handfuls of grass to feed to a coop of vigorous, adolescent-looking turkeys that are destined to land on Thanksgiving tables in a few months. In another coop, Baffoni brushes his hand along tiny chicks moving around under heat lamps.
Baffoni’s Farm has not been infected, but he resists casting blame on farms with the disease, saying “all you need is one unfortunate incident” to allow the disease to slip into a flock, thus requiring a mass killing, or “depopulation” in USDA terminology, of the flock.
Baffoni’s biosecurity methods include repairing or replacing screens on the coops to keep sparrows and other wild birds out; limiting the number of farm employees who work directly with the birds; and having disinfectant foot baths at entrances to coops, to prevent contaminated materials, like feces, from moving into coops. Baffoni also asks his 40 employees not to keep chickens at their own homes, and he has reduced the number of outsider visits, such as local chefs, who traditionally were welcome to tour the farm.
Also, when Baffoni is getting a shipment of birds, for example, chicks to add to his flock or birds to be processed, he tells the delivery truck drivers to stop a few miles from the farm, and he meets them there, examining the birds for signs of sickness, like faded combs, watery eyes, and coughing, before they may enter his property.
“We’ve taken all the [biosecurity] measures,” Baffoni said. “There is no interaction between wild animals and my livestock. All you need is one bad incident and all your hard work has gone for naught.”
Much of what Baffoni said is echoed by Julia Chang, livestock coordinator at Movement Ground Farm in Tiverton. The 10-year-old farm is a busy place, raising vegetables a small number of sheep and pigs, and a little more than 200 chickens for eggs and meat. The farm has a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, attends farmers markets, and hosts retreats and meetings.
Chang said the single most important biosecurity measure the farm has taken is staff education. The farm keeps its chickens in portable coops that are lifted and moved onto fresh pasture frequently. Land predators are kept at bay by electric fences. Food and water dishes are covered, to protect birds from air drops of virus. Outside visitors and the number of farmhands who interact with the chickens have been limited.
This system allows the chickens to forage in fresh grass and to also be protected. Noting that Movement Ground Farm chickens live outdoors and close to nature, Chang said, “Avian flu proliferates where there is not a lot of sunshine.”
Chang said Baffoni’s farm is a leader in Rhode Island in setting a high bar for management of birds.
“Baffoni’s has gone above and beyond to make sure their operation goes well,” Chang said. “They have taken a lot of steps to set an incredible example.”
Jessica Lovstad, veterinarian at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said the zoo has moved some of its more susceptible birds to enclosed areas for now. That included the zoo’s single turkey, who, Lovstad said, was very displeased about being taken indoors.
Lovstad was not surprised to hear about the Maine seal that was infected, and she surmised that it happened when the seal ingested feces from a sick bird. She said influenza mutates quickly and easily; in the past other flu strains have moved into domestic cats and even a whale. She said in Florida there were reports of vultures dying from bird flu, probably from eating carcasses of sick birds.
Anticipating the summer agriculture fair and exhibit season, in mid-May the New England veterinarians encouraged a moratorium on fowl and poultry exhibits through July 1. In all years, regardless of seasonal flus, an official certificate of veterinary inspection is required for each state for every animal that crosses state lines. Animals crossing state lines must be identified under federal and state Animal Disease Traceability requirements. Each state to which an animal travels needs to be contacted to verify that all movement permits are satisfied before shipping animals.
This year, the New England States Animal Agricultural Security Alliance developed a new protocol for animal movement. The New England veterinarians agreed to allow one official certificate of inspection for animals of the same species to be exhibited at fairs or shows in any of the New England states, when submitted with an itinerary of the dates and locations of the events at which the animals were to be shown. Only animals that are healthy at the time of shipment may be moved.
Marshall, Rhode Island’s state veterinarian, said when a “confirmed diagnosis” of avian flu shows up in a flock, all birds in the group must be humanely killed within 24 hours. Farmers are eligible for a federal payment, or indemnity, for the destroyed birds. The amount varies according to the value of the bird, judged by its age, productivity, and commercial value.
Poultry farmers are paid only for living birds that must be destroyed because of the presence of the disease in the flock, not for birds killed by the disease itself. Therefore, Marshall said, farmers are motivated to report quickly to the USDA that bird flu is infecting their animals, while most of the flock is still alive.
When the USDA learns of bird flu in a commercial flock it immediately establishes a 10-kilometer control zone around the location of the bird deaths. Thereafter a permit is required to move any poultry products into and out of the control zone, until the USDA lifts it.
Marshall said the disease tends to peter out during hot and dry weather. The number of reported cases across in the country was in the hundreds each week in April, he said, and those numbers have been ticking downward ever since.
“When the number gets down to zero, eventually all the control areas will be released and we will be out of this,” he said.