1.4 million birds culled in first bird flu outbreak in Pennsylvania

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Meat supply chickens

Bird flu was confirmed over the weekend in the heart of Pennsylvania’s poultry industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed on April 16 a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a commercial layer chicken flock, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

This is the first confirmed case of HPAI in Pennsylvania in commercial poultry since an outbreak in 1983-84.

“We’ve planned for this moment for years,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, during an April 18 press conference at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex.

“We have watched the virus spread around us in recent months, with Pennsylvania now being the 28th infected state. We have our own hard lessons from 1983 and ’84. And we have the lessons and experiences learned from others in 2015 and ’16. Each lesson has shaped and sharpened our focus. It’s refined our protocols, strengthened our partnerships and built a resolve and capacity to respond.”

HPAI has now been detected in commercial and backyard poultry in 29 states. More than 28 million birds have been culled nationwide since the first case was confirmed in February.

The outbreak

The positive samples were taken from a flock, in East Donegal Township, Lancaster County. There were 1.4 million birds in the infected flock, all of which were culled and composted, in accordance with the state’s response plan.

When the impacted facility can restock its barns will depend on a lot of variables, Redding said.

“Our goal is to get them back in but we’re going to have to test the community, the environment, the surrounding poultry operations to make sure that there’s no further high path AI in that environment, and then we’ll think about talking about restocking this one,” he said.

The response

All commercial poultry farms within a 10 kilometer radius of the infected flock are quarantined by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. There are 103 commercial poultry farms within the quarantine zone.

The quarantine requires farms to test twice before moving poultry or poultry products out of the zone: once at 48 hours before movement and another at 24 hours before movement, said Alex Hamberg, assistant director of the bureau of animal health and diagnostic services for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The farm must also have an approved biosecurity plan.

There are 1,677 poultry operations in Lancaster County and 10,361 statewide. The state’s poultry industry is worth more than $7 billion, according to the department of agriculture.

“The heart of the poultry industry in Pennsylvania is in Lancaster County, so it’s even more reason for the heightened concern and the importance of containment and biosecurity,” Redding said.

The state has been preparing for an animal health crisis like this since the last bird flu outbreak in 2015-16. The state set aside $2 million since 2016 to respond to avian influenza. Hamberg said Pennsylvania’s three animal health laboratories analyzed nearly 200,000 samples for HPAI last year.

The last highly pathogenic bird flu outbreak in Pennsylvania began in 1983 and ended in 1984. It was isolated to the state but required more than 17 million birds to be culled, mostly in south central Pennsylvania, and cost the industry more than $60 million.

What is Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza?

Avian influenza viruses are naturally occurring and ever-present in wild birds that often do not appear sick. The wild birds spread the virus in their droppings and wherever they land. 

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza is highly contagious and often fatal to domestic birds, including chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, guinea fowl, quail and pheasants. 

It was first detected in Pennsylvania in a wild bald eagle in Chester County and four ducks in Venango County, in late March.

It can cause sudden death without clinical signs; lack of energy and appetite, decreased egg production, soft-shelled or misshapen eggs; swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks, purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs; nasal discharge; coughing; sneezing; lack of coordination; and diarrhea.

How to protect your flock

To protect domestic poultry, anyone visiting a farm should be aware that their vehicles and shoes may carry the virus from other places they have walked. 

Clean them thoroughly and stay away from poultry barns unless you have to be there.

If you have backyard chickens – pets or birds raised for show – keep them indoors and protect them from contamination by wild birds or their droppings.

How to report concerns

If you suspect your poultry is infected with avian influenza, report your concerns to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services at 717-772-2852, option 1.

Sick or dead wild birds should be reported to the Pennsylvania Game Commission at 610-926- 3136 or pgc-wildlifehealth@pa.gov.

No shows

The news of the positive case came hot on the heels of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s announcement April 14 that it was temporarily banning the exhibition of poultry and eggs at county and local fairs in Pennsylvania.

The ban began April 16 and will last 60 days or until the department rescinds the order. The 60-day ban will end June 15, the day before the first fair scheduled for the season is set to begin. 

The temporary ban prohibits the presence and display of poultry and poultry products, including eggs, feathers and other parts and items made of these parts. The ban applies to the 108 county and local fairs that receive state funding under the Pennsylvania Agricultural Fair Act.

If no birds can be taken to the fairs, there are other things 4-H’ers can do to stay engaged with the poultry projects, said Phillip J. Clauer, Pennsylvania 4-H poultry programs coordinator. Poultry exhibition was banned in Pennsylvania during the 2015 HPAI outbreak that occurred in other states, and in 2020, most fairs were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We already have a playbook,” he said. There are a lot of other events and contests to keep kids engaged in the poultry project. It just might not be bringing a bird to the fair.”

Children who are planning to show poultry this summer probably have them by now. Clauer said even if they can’t be shown, he suspects kids will be raising them anyway as most who do the poultry projects enjoy raising birds.

Besides, the projects are about more than putting a bird before a judge at the fair. When he rewrote the 4-H poultry manual after the 2015 outbreak, Clauer included a new section on biosecurity. Now it’s mandatory during showmanship to answer biosecurity questions.

“The whole principle behind this is education,” he said. “We’re trying to educate people how to do things right and better.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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