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
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.
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
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.
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.”