Nature’s calling, is anyone listening?

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Question: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Answer: Neither; both arrived after a qualified veterinarian declared their farm disease-free following a complete depopulation because of an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI.

It’s no joke. On June 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced that 192 “detections” of the disease have been confirmed around the U.S. since last December, when HPAI was first identified.

Overall, USDA estimates, 45 million turkeys, chickens, and ducks in 15 states have been euthanized in an effort to limit the spread of the contagious, deadly flu.

Much of the disease is centered in Minnesota and Iowa where, respectively, “more than” 8.2 million turkeys and 29 million laying hens have been destroyed.

Costly disease

This latest calamity to hit U.S. animal agriculture, reports the Associated Press, has already cost growers in just those two states over $1 billion.

The avian flu outbreak arrived as the equally deadly porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, was beginning to wind down after a devastating hit on American hog herds.

The illness, which carried an 80-percent-plus mortality rate once it infected baby pigs, killed “at least” 8 million head of pigs in the U.S. in 2013 and 2014, according to the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

Other diseases

And these two deadly diseases follow decades-long searches to understand and thwart two other animal-related catastrophes we take for granted: bovine spongiform encephalophathy, or mad cow disease, and honey bee colony collapse disorder.

Mad cow, often referred to as BSE, is still around. In mid-February, the Canadian Food Inspection Service confirmed BSE in one beef cow in Alberta.

The news was a not too-subtle reminder that it’s already been 20 years since the United Kingdom ordered more than 4.4 million head of cattle slaughtered in its attempts to eradicate it.

Honey bee colony collapse is even older. Marked declines in honey bee populations were noticed in 1987 but colony collapse didn’t become big news until 2006, when annual bee losses topped an unsustainable 30 percent, twice the usual number.

USDA estimates that $15 billion of U.S. crops each year depend on honey bees and other pollinators. In fact, the world is so dependent on vital farm workers that on May 19, the White House released its report National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.

The 64-page report contains recommendations on how to cut colony collapse losses to “no more than 15 percent within 10 years” and the need to “restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators” in the next five years.

Nothing new

Animal disease is not new. What is new, however, is the speed at which these diseases emerge and how quickly many spread because of today’s genetically homogenized, industrially concentrated herds and flocks.

We’ve placed much of our animal production on thin reeds in just a few ponds and when disease hits it hits both animals and producers like a scythe.

Even then, these big numbers of dead or sick are relatively small when compared to the overall size of today’s massive animal factories.

For example, the 29 million egg-laying hens killed in Iowa in attempts to limit the spread of avian flu — an enormous number by any measure — is roughly 10 percent of the 303 million laying hens in today’s egg-producing American flock.

By the numbers

Even more numbing is what these 29 million birds represent in the overall U.S. chicken flock: it’s a barely detectable speck because the U.S. produces almost 160 million broiler (meat) chickens per week, or 8.5 billion per year.

Add that number to the 300 million laying hens and 29 million is — what? — well, almost invisible.

Maybe that’s why we don’t listen to what nature might be telling us when these waves of devastating diseases slam our cattle, hogs, chickens, and honey bees.

We’re so smart and so productive we assume we’ll beat ‘em.
That might be a fair assumption but it’s a sucker bet.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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