The Fight to Fend Off Bird Flu With Lasers and Inflatable Dancers

Loren Brey, a poultry farmer from Minnesota, visited the farm where his laying turkeys nest in November to discover a handful of chickens, dead from highly pathogenic avian flu.

In one week, he lost almost half his herd.

So when Mr. Brey’s turkeys began producing eggs again in the spring, he tried a seemingly unconventional prevention method: lasers installed atop his barns, emitting beams of green light to repel wild ducks, owls and other possible carriers of the deadly virus. .

As migratory birds fly north for spring, poultry farmers and backyard breeders across the country are preparing for another outbreak of bird flu. Although the most recent strain has killed only a small portion of the nearly 10 billion chickens, turkeys, ducks and other birds sold across the country each year, some poultry farmers like Mr. Brey are turning to innovative tactics to protect their herds, by deploying deterrents. like drones, horns, balloons and decoy predators.

These practices highlight the rush of small and even some larger-scale farms to ward off the virus, as well as the weariness and grudging acceptance of the disease after years of health protocols, lockdowns and debates over vaccination.

The most affected seem to be large industrial farms and those that raise laying hens: two thirds of the depopulated birds belong to just 30 farms with at least a million laying hens. Turkey farms, like Mr. Brey’s, have also been hit hard, accounting for 350 of the 481 commercial farms with detected cases. Birds are particularly susceptible to infection and are more exposed to the virus because many turkey farms are on the migratory path of many wild waterfowl, said Dr. Carol Cardona, an avian health expert at the University. of Minnesota.

An infection has far-reaching consequences.

Under federal policy, an infected bird may require culling or eliminating an entire flock, then disposing of the carcasses by composting, burial, incineration or rendering. The regulations have led to the deaths of 90 million birds and affected more than 1,100 flocks across the country since February 2022, when the strain, the deadliest yet in the United States, was first detected.

Because areas where infected birds once lived must be disinfected and quarantined and repopulating a flock takes time, production can be disrupted for months. As a result, the total number of laying hens fell by around seven million between 2021 and 2023, producing a billion fewer eggs per year – and contributing to rising costs.

Christian Alexandre, 32, who raises laying hens on 300 acres of prairie nestled between coastal redwoods and the Pacific Ocean near Crescent City, Calif., said it took six months before production capacity increased. fully recovered after the late detection of avian influenza. 2022.

“The hardest thing for farmers is definitely losing the birds. And then losing work for your employees and not being able to supply your customers,” he said, adding that the depopulation and composting of the bodies afterward was traumatic.

Mr. Alexandre collects eggs by hand in mobile hen houses without doors or floors to ensure the birds have full access to the outdoors. Rather than restocking on newly hatched chicks and waiting months for them to grow, he instead purchased “spent,” organic brown hens, or layers that had reached the peak of their egg production period. Nearly 3 years old, the hens lay fewer eggs per day than younger hens, but Mr Alexandre’s farm has returned to full capacity, producing 10,000 to 12,000 eggs per day.

To avoid another outbreak, Mr. Alexandre is now limiting farm visits and disinfecting thoroughly, but he has pledged to stick to his convictions. As president of the American Pastured Poultry Association, he said he was aware of only a handful of cases among its 1,100 member farmers. “Am I afraid of getting it again?” Not enough to keep my birds inside,” he said.

Mr. Alexandre also tried to install lasers on his farm. But after a while, the starlings began to learn the patterns of the lasers and were no longer afraid of the lightsaber-like beams.

Acknowledging that the deterrents were not foolproof, Craig Duhr, chief commercial officer of the Bird Control Group, which makes the lasers, said demand increased with each outbreak. Dairy farmers, he said, were now looking to install the system, which starts at $12,500 per unit, since the disease was detected in cows last month.

Other protective measures farmers have turned to in an attempt to ward off potentially deadly carriers, according to Dr. Cardona: nets, noisy machinery and inflatable dancers. “Scary man, you know, guys who explode,” she said. But she stressed that the seasonal and evolving nature of the virus meant farmers had to regularly step up safety measures.

“It’s like sprints, like reps. You sprint. And then you rest. Then you sprint again,” Dr. Cardona said. “You use this time off to build your resilience and make sure you are ready for the next season. And then you hope and pray.

To build that resilience, experts and officials recommend following certain protocols: minimizing visitors, cleaning and disinfecting vigorously, keeping water and food away from wild birds and mammals, and isolating newly purchased birds or those returning from the crowds, among others.

However, avian flu can sneak into the most strictly closed henhouses. Mr. Brey, for example, has a designated parking space for anyone who comes into contact with his turkeys, Danish entry systems where people can clean and disinfect themselves, and filtered air intakes.

“You can strengthen and strengthen your biosecurity until you are blue in the face. Like, what time is it now? Three hours? I’m already on my eighth shower today,” said Mr. Brey, who has been raising birds for three decades.

This constant vigilance has severely tested the patience of some poultry farmers.

Samantha Gasson, who raises 2,000 broiler chickens – those raised for meat – and 400 turkeys on pastures in North Carolina, followed standard protocols and flew drones to repel Senate vultures, which can carry the virus and surround his lambs and cows.

But after years of worrying about the virus, she has now learned to cope with it, comparing her response to burnout caused by the pandemic.

“With Covid, in the beginning, I was definitely one of those people who masked up and gave everyone 20 feet,” said Ms. Gasson, who works for an animal welfare and food safety nonprofit. . “And with the flu, it was the same thing. During that first year, I definitely lost sleep over it. Since then, it’s like it’s part of life.

Rachael Arestad used to scan the federal case tracking system that monitors the spread of bird flu almost daily when the current strain confined her 18 chickens to their pink, home-built chicken coop in her backyard in rural Connecticut.

Two years later, his vigilance diminished. Ms. Arestad will periodically check to see if the virus has been detected nearby, avoid dog parks covered in goose droppings and tie balloons in her yard to scare away foxes, which could bring the virus or attack her birds. But the idea of ​​keeping her chickens, which she considers pets, in perpetual confinement is not appealing.

“I just hope that at some point in the future they offer a vaccine for backyard chickens,” she said. “We don’t sell our chickens abroad, do we? We just want to see happy, healthy herds.

Mr. Brey, who is also president of the Minnesota Turkey Research and Promotion Council, struck a note of resignation when it came to properly warding off bird flu.

“You stay awake in bed for days and days, how the hell?” he added. “How, how, what should I do differently? I don’t know this answer.

News Source :
Gn Health

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