As waterfowl begin their migration south, poultry farmers say they’re hopeful the journey doesn’t include a Delmarva pit stop, keeping the industry free from the highly pathogenic strain of the avian flu that has decimated 48 million birds to the west.
But they’re preparing just in case.
Georgie Catanza, a Dover farmer who grows organic chickens, said increased biosecurity measures mean that she’ll stop free-range access for her flock beginning Oct. 15, as the height of the migratory season gets under way.
Catanza raises more than 150,000 chickens as a contract grower for Coleman Natural Foods, a subsidiary of Perdue. As an organic grower, she abides by growing standards that include no antibiotics, a diet of organic feed, and free-range access.
“My chickens are allowed to free-range when they’re 3 weeks old,” said Catanza. “But that will stop.”
It’s just one of many strategies put in place by processors and the State of Delaware in an effort to protect the poultry industry from the devastation of their West Coast counterparts.
“The good news is that we’re better prepared than Iowa and Minnesota,” said Bill Satterfield, communications director for the Delmarva Poultry Industry. “Part of the problems in the Midwest was that they did not have plans in place.”
Satterfield said although there has not been a new diagnosis since mid-June, the potential exists for new cases as waterfowl pass through the Atlantic flyway. Like the human influenza, there are various strains of the Avian flu; the highly pathogenic strain that struck the Midwest is the deadliest and most economically devastating.
Analysis of the economic impact by the University of Minnesota put the losses in that state at $309 million in May; an Iowa Farm Bureau study put its income losses at $425 million. More than 34 million birds on 77 Iowa farms were depopulated within just two months, according to the study.
As a precaution closer to home, the Delaware Department of Agriculture banned ducks and geese from the Delaware State Fair in July; neighboring Pennsylvania banned avian shows and activity from all county and state fairs this year.
Poultry and related industries contributed $3.2 billion to the Delaware economy in 2011, according to University of Delaware Cooperative extension officials; Sussex County generated more than $657 million in poultry and egg sales, according to the 2012 Ag census figures, accounting for nearly 75 percent of agricultural production in the state.
“It really has tremendous impact so we want to be prepared,” said Satterfield.
In Delaware, the Department of Agriculture is working in conjunction with the Delaware Emergency Management Agency and the private sector to both monitor other states and provide resources for growers and processors, including an online information center.
“Delaware is fully prepared if it is detected here,” said Dan Shortridge, director of communications and marketing at the Delaware Department of Agriculture. “We don’t have a crystal ball – no one does – so we are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”
There are no immediate public health concerns from avian influenza in other states, and that avian influenza does not affect poultry meat or egg products, which are safe to eat when properly prepared, according to the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control.
“We partnered in early June with Delaware and Maryland Cooperative Extension and the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., for a series of programs for commercial growers on keeping disease off the farm, emphasizing proper biosecurity precautions; a second set of programs is planned for later this month,” said Shortridge.
Delaware’s commercial poultry industry has a strong and active avian influenza surveillance program, according to Shortridge. Every commercial flock is tested for avian influenza before it goes to market and every farmer is aware of the signs and symptoms.
Jesse Vanderwende grows 100,000 roasters on his midsize farm in Bridgeville, where he houses 4 ½ flocks each year as a contract grower for Perdue.
He said the company has done a good job of educating its contract growers about safety measures, which include disinfecting shoes before entering and leaving the chicken house, keeping poultry houses clean from varmints; and limiting outside visitors.
Soon, he and Catanza will have to have a separate pair of shoes for each chicken house. Both farmers have a biosecurity sign posted outside the chicken houses, a warning to visitors. The biggest risk remains from migratory birds.
“Obviously the geese can’t read it but it’s plain for everyone else to see,” joked Venderwende.
Tyson Foods and Perdue referred questions to prepared statements found on their websites.
At Tyson Foods, officials noted that heightened biosecurity include limiting non-essential visitor access to contract farms, maintaining proper disinfection of vehicles entering those farms and the use of a biosecurity uniform. Additional precautions for on-farm footwear have been established to prevent potential tracking of the virus into poultry houses.
According Perdue’s statement, “If the virus is found within an area where we raise our chickens, we will work with state and federal authorities to prevent the virus’ spread to our flocks or to other poultry, while increasing our biosecurity throughout the entire region, including visits and deliveries to farms.
“We would quickly perform additional testing on all flocks within the defined ‘surveillance zone,’ and limit bird movements if we should have farms within the designated ‘quarantine zone.’”
While biosecurity measures are in place, at least one key point is still under review.
If the event of an outbreak, just how will farmers be reimbursed for the disruption to their operations?
Growers don’t own the birds; the processor does, explained Satterfield. He said that when the government confiscates a property and depopulates the birds, USDA pays an indemnity to the integrator for the cost of the bird the day it was depopulated.
According to the USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection service will give the producer an indemnity payment equal to the fair market value of the animal and will also indemnify for materials such as tools or pallets that must be destroyed. It does not cover production losses for the time a farm will be out of commission after disease is detected.
How much the farmer gets from the processor is still a mystery, according to Satterfield, who added that chicken companies pay their growers based on the time the birds were alive.
“How much and what their formula is, we don’t know,” said Satterfield. DPI has crafted a letter to area processors asking about the plan, and whether processors will pay the farmers for the remaining weeks until the bird would have gone to processing.
Catanza said Perdue has outlined a payment schedule for potential loss, based on the age of the flocks at the time of depopulation.
“It’s a huge concern for growers,” said Catanza. “If I lost a flock there’s the potential to be out for three months. And my mortgage payment is due whether I have a flock or not.”
Catanza said a standard contract stipulates that the chicken company incurs costs of feed, fuel and day-to-day costs associated with the chicks – nearly $800,000 a year. She said she feels better that Perdue has committed to help the farmers should an outbreak occur.
For farmers who still carry a mortgage, the potential economic impact could be devastating. Vanderwende said he hasn’t worried about those details, but is talking to his insurance agent about additional coverage.
The standard farm policy does not cover disease, but some local insurance agents have expanded coverage options to address the disruption of operations and to cover fixed costs and expenses incurred by quarantine and depopulation.
“Eighty five percent of our book of business consists of poultry farms,” said Cory Fetterman, a Nationwide agent in Milford. “We have many generational farms and many young farmers starting this venture on their own. Depending on their individual situation, a disease such as the avian flu can potentially be catastrophic.”
But Vanderwende said he isn’t losing sleep, choosing instead to follow guidelines and hope for the best.
“If this were to hit the Delmarva Peninsula, it could be pretty damaging to the economy for a while,” said Vanderwende. “We’re all just kind of crossing our fingers and hoping that nothing happens here.”