Disease-limiting steps, not bird health,
drive official avian flu preparations

Pastured poultry producers consider stark options
if US outbreak reported.

By Maggie Fry-Manross

Photo by Deborah Ory

APHIS biosecurity basics:
separate, observe

1. Confine the flock and restrict access to the birds, particularly by other bird producers. Visitors to the farm should be kept to a minimum, but those who must interact with the flock should wear coveralls and disinfect shoes and boots before and after entering the bird confinement area. Birds should be kept in screened pens and wild birds should not be allowed to mix with domestic poultry.

2. Keep poultry area clean. APHIS recommends having a separate set of coveralls and shoes to wear when working with the birds and making sure all equipment that the birds come into contact with is clean and disinfected. Don’t track manure in or out of the poultry area. Disinfect vehicle tires before and after you have visited somewhere birds might be present such as shows, fairs or the feed mill.

3. Quarantine new birds. Any new birds brought into the flock, with the exception of day-old chicks, should be kept separate for at least 30 days before putting them with the rest of the birds. To be safe, avoid mixing young birds with adults or chickens with different species of poultry.

4. Observe birds vigilantly. Watch for unusual behavior or signs of illness such as: sudden death; diarrhea; decreased or complete loss of egg production or soft-shelled, misshapen eggs; sneezing, gasping for air, nasal discharge or coughing; lack of energy and appetite; swelling of tissues around eyes and in neck; purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs; depression; muscular tremors; drooping wings; twisting of head and neck; incoordination or complete paralysis. As soon as any signs of illness are detected, poultry owners are asked to report it by calling the USDA hotline at 1-866-536-7593.


Five things pasture-based farmers
can do to protect healthy flocks

1. Be biosecure. Limit access to your flock by other poultry owners and wild birds. Don’t share equipment. Disinfect anything that comes in contact with your birds or anyone else’s.

2. Close your flock. Don’t bring in new birds except day-old chicks.

3. Pay close attention to flock health including nutrition, water supply, housing and bedding. Move flock or change bedding daily. A healthy immune system may mean the difference between life and death for your flock.

4. Educate your customers to the realistic dangers of avian influenza. If the virus mutates, it could be passed from human to human, but at this point that has not happened. It is highly unlikely that anyone will get bird flu from casual contact with poultry and it is not transmitted through eating birds.

5. Contact your representatives and lobby for a reasonable response plan that takes into account the health and condition of individual flocks, rather than depending on automatic, widespread culling.


American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA)
Avian flu updates in bimonthly newsletters; position paper to be posted this month on new website Avian Flu section, with resource links; information sheets for producers to give to consumers (in process); member-only list-serve; board and staff respond to questions.

US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

About H5N1 Avian Influenza: Centers for Disease Control

World Health Organization

National Public Radio - provides a good, no-nonsense overview of the situation

Release the chickens!

Looking for more information on exactly how to get started with pastured poultry? Check out the popular series from Jean Nick on getting started with pastured chickens:

Part I: Making the decision, jumping in head first, and some resources that will come in handy.

Part II: More details on certification, housing, choosing breeds, chicks or pullets, and roosters.

Part III: The basics of watering and feeding, setting up nest boxes, and making it through winter.

January 12, 2006: It seems you can’t turn on TV, radio or computer right now without hearing about “Bird Flu.” Heightened public safety concerns are forcing commercial producers with outdoor flocks to consider new precautions if the threat to US birds seems imminent. If the disease actually reaches a US flock, options could be more drastic.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which surfaced in Thailand and Vietnam in the mid-1990s, has grabbed media attention because of its ability to infect humans who have come in close contact. Among those who have been hospitalized with the disease, about half of the patients have died. What has public health professionals most worried is the remote potential of the virus to mutate into a form that can be passed from person to person.

Unfortunately, public hysteria and government over-reaction to the potential threat may do more damage to the free-range poultry industry than the disease itself. Small-scale poultry producers who pride themselves on raising healthy birds in the open air may be forced to choose between staying in business and confining their flocks during heightened risk periods.

Kip Glass, a pastured poultry producer from Bois D’Arc, Missouri, is concerned about the government response to a possible outbreak. “Like most other producers, I'm worried that this will be an excuse for the USDA to force confinement on small producers,” Glass said. “I'm in a large poultry area here….This is the largest area for confinement poultry in the country. I'm just worried they're going to use it for an excuse to get rid of the little guys.”

Pastured poultry production is a system whereby birds are housed in moveable coops, pens or shelters and are allowed access to green grass, sunlight and fresh air. According to the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) website, birds raised in a pastured poultry setting “receive up to 20 percent of their feed intake from pasture forage. The birds are moved regularly to fresh pasture, which allows the birds to be raised in a cleaner, healthier environment. Pastured poultry is raised the old-fashioned way; on fresh green pasture and wholesome grain.”

Believing in better birds

In confinement systems, thousands of chickens or turkeys per building are kept indoors in crowded conditions, and usually fed antibiotics as a routine part of their diet. Many pastured poultry producers and their customers believe that birds raised outdoors have stronger immune systems and live with less stress than birds raised in confinement and are, therefore, more resistant to diseases.

“There are no documented cases of avian influenza in pastured, free-range, organic birds,” said Jeff Mattocks, organic livestock feed specialist and pastured poultry specialist with Fertrell Inc., a Pennsylvania company that produces organic feed products and soil amendments. “If the immune system is functioning at 100 percent, birds should be able to fight off avian influenza.”

An officer with APPPA, Mattocks reasoned, “I don't have a great concern for the pastured poultry folks getting infected. Sunshine and green grass go a long way to build the immune system and protect the birds.”

Unfortunately, while this position may sound like common sense, there is little or no scientific evidence to support it. “No one has studied the difference in immune system responses in free-range and confined birds,” said Dr. Eric Gingerich, DVM, Staff Veterinarian and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “A highly pathogenic form of disease like the Asian form will probably affect everyone. Biosecurity is about the only tool we have at this point.”

Official policy: stopping disease

Biosecurity is the practice of ensuring that disease organisms are not spread from one animal population to another. The practice focuses more on preventing the spread of disease than on promoting the organic approach of optimal health of individual birds or of the flock as a whole.

Photo by Deborah Ory

According to Madelaine Fletcher, Public Affairs Specialist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, biosecurity is the basket where the government has put all of its eggs. “One of the things we've been doing for the past year and a half is outreach and education to people who raise backyard poultry. We've developed quite a few materials on biosecurity.”

A complete description of APHIS’s biosecurity recommendations is available at www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/birdbiosecurity.

While these recommendations might be useful to recreational poultry enthusiasts, they miss the mark for commercial pastured poultry producers. The latter tend to be hands-on business people who pay close attention to the health, nutrition and living conditions of their flocks and fiercely hold one belief in common: confinement is bad for birds.

But if the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza is detected in this country, that is precisely what the USDA will expect them to do. There is no word yet as to how much time producers would be given to get their flocks under cover once the order comes.

Counsel from UK farm group

Organic farmers in the United Kingdom have been considering their options for some time, in light of their experience with Mad Cow Disease and the government response to it. The Soil Association (SA), the largest organic certification organization in the UK, in a briefing paper for its organic poultry producers recommends they take steps appropriate to the threat level:

• The farms considered most at risk for an avian flu outbreak are those in the flight path of migratory birds coming from Asia and other infected areas.

• If an outbreak occurs in Europe, farmers may be forced to move birds into confinement. The SA recommends coops, straw bale structures or polytunnels as temporary bird housing with a stocking density of six birds per square meter (a meter is a little less that a yard) for laying hens. For birds that are used to going outdoors, this may seem too confining and they may become bored and develop bad habits such as feather pecking. To soften the social impact of this suddenly forced closeness, the Soils Association recommends building runs off of the coop. The runs should have a solid roof; small-diameter, wire mesh walls and plenty of bedding. If confinement is required during hot weather, ventilation will have to be considered.

• Recommendations to keep birds active within pens include hanging vegetables or bright objects at pecking height, spreading grain or grit in straw for the birds to scratch through, straw bales or other objects for the birds to perch on and lightweight plastic balls or other toys to attract the birds’ attention.

• If they move birds into temporary confinement, producers should consult their animal nutrition specialist. Confined birds have different nutritional needs than free-ranging birds.

Photo by Jean Nick

Instead of mandatory culling of all the poultry flocks in an area where infection is found, the SA recommends selective culling followed by “ring vaccination.” This would mean that an infected flock would be killed, but healthy flocks around it would be vaccinated to form a ring around the known outbreak and, hopefully, contain it. The European Union has yet to make a decision on this issue.

Dr. Gingerich considers a vaccination program a possibility for the US. “Vaccination usually reduces the shed rate of the virus significantly,” he said. “It was used successfully in an outbreak of a low pathogenic form of avian flu a few years ago in Connecticut. If we attack the virus agressively when we find the first flock, a minimal number of flocks have to be destroyed. The virus only spread to three flocks in Connecticut.”

No vaccine yet for H5N1

But, Dr. Gingerich points out, the problem in this situation is that there is, as yet, no vaccine to combat this virus. There are vaccines to protect against other forms of avian flu, but none have been developed to provide immunity against the H5N1 Asian form of avian influenza. A vaccination program was undertaken in China in an effort to contain the virus, but it had limited success. “The Chinese program is questionable,” Dr. Gingerich said. “It looks as if the vaccinators may actually be spreading the virus through poor hygiene practices.”

Both Mattocks and Gingerich stress the importance of good management practices to promote poultry health. “Environmental conditions are very important and air quality is the most important of all,” Mattocks said. “Also keep up water quality and feed quality.”

Dr. Gingerich considers pond water a particular source of concern. “The biggest danger is wild waterfowl. They carry avian influenza viruses without showing any symptoms. Ponds on farms are a high-risk situation.” Poultry should not be permitted to drink from a water source that may be visited by wild fowl.

Many small-scale poultry farmers have relationships with the people who buy their birds or eggs. One of the most important things producers can do to protect their businesses from the avian flu threat is to educate their customers, and the public, about the disease and how they raise their birds.

For starters, poultry production in this country contrasts markedly with that in Indo-China, according to pastured poultry producer David Smith of Sparks, Maryland. “In southeast Asia, chickens are kept in mud lots where they walk in excrement all the time. People walk in this excrement in their bare feet and that is how they get the virus,” Smith said. “That isn’t how we raise chickens in this country.” (Initial reports from Turkey this week indicate that the three deaths there were also due to close contact. – Ed.)

Also, producers can point out to their customers that avian flu can not be transmitted by eating poultry products. Even if a bird carried the flu virus, thorough cooking would kill the virus.

Ultimately, most pastured poultry producers recognize that they may have to make hopefully short-lived changes on their farms if the dangerous form of Asian flu reaches the US. Some, like Smith, plan to fence in their day-range shelters if they have to. Others, like Ritch and Glass, would probably go out of the poultry business, at least until the epidemic is over.

“We as a nation do rely on our government to put things in place to keep plagues from moving through the country,” Ritch said. “We want that. If they want us to deflock, I'll deflock.”