By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- The economic impact of the H5N2 avian influenza outbreak is estimated at more than $3.3 billion, and the devastation the virus has caused to the poultry industry is prompting USDA to plan for a worst-case scenario in case the virus returns this fall.
USDA was caught off-guard with the way H5N2 moved through turkey and chicken operations earlier this spring. The outbreak is now officially considered "the largest animal health emergency in this country's history," said John Clifford, USDA's chief veterinarian.
Clifford and others gave senators post-mortem details on Tuesday as the Senate Agriculture Committee assessed the impacts of H5N2 and how USDA is preparing for the likelihood that the virus will return this fall.
Warmer weather has caused the virus to subside after hammering operations in states such as Iowa and Minnesota throughout the spring. Clifford noted it's been more than two weeks since a positive case has been found in Iowa and nearly four weeks since a case was discovered in Minnesota.
USDA is preparing for a more comprehensive, worst-case scenario if the disease returns this fall that assumes the virus could hit as many as 500 commercial operations. That includes hiring as many as 460 temporary staff, including 300 veterinary first-responders who will be staged around the country.
"What we're planning is a worst-case scenario that every major poultry-producing state in this country for layers, broilers and turkeys could be affected," Clifford said.
The virus was carried by wild waterfowl that migrated from the Pacific Flyway into the Mississippi Flyway as ducks and geese headed back north this spring. Those waterfowl are now co-mingling with birds that will also travel down the Atlantic Flyway this fall as well. Thus, the virus could spread throughout the fall and winter into commercial bird operations.
The outbreak hit 21 states, of which nine states had commercial operations. All told, 211 commercial facilities were hit, leading USDA to euthanize 42 million chickens and 7.5 million turkeys. That affects about 10% of the egg-laying operations and 3% of the turkey population.
Tom Elam, an agricultural economist with FarmEcon in Indiana, estimated the economic loss around the country from the virus was conservatively $3.3 billion.
One of the challenges responding to the virus was tapping resources at USDA. The department has spent about $500 million so far in dealing with the outbreak. Clifford noted USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been drained of resources in recent years to deal with such a task. USDA has lost about $430 million and roughly 800 positions since budget sequestration went into effect in 2013. Within the veterinarian services area, Clifford said his staff has been cut by 225 positions.
About 400 USDA staff and roughly 3,000 contracted personnel have been working on euthanizing poultry and then cleaning facilities and removing poultry.
Senators and farmers at the hearing complained about the struggles USDA has had cleaning facilities, though Clifford said USDA is changing procedures to better handle the situation if it becomes as bad this fall.
USDA gave producers the option of going in and using their own staff to remove birds and clean facilities or having USDA contractors do it. Circumstances were different for turkey operations that could compost dead birds on the floor of a barn versus egg-laying operations that were much more complicated because of the cages. "In the layer industry, it's extremely costly and a long period of time to be able to address this issue," he said. "We're trying to break down some of these things."
Clifford noted that removing dead birds from large egg-laying operations was a challenge. Contractors might remove up to 100,000 birds a day, but the facility could have 3 million birds. Special suits are needed for caution, and then there is the need to prevent workers from becoming overheated and to allow time for them to rest. Manure also has to be removed because it transmits the virus. "This is not an easy task. Some of these pits underneath these layer houses, the manure has not been moved for years. It's massive," he said.
Clifford noted one of the biggest problems was ensuring there were disposal sites capable of receiving and processing dead birds. He said USDA has alerted states to be more prepared in their response by ensuring there are facilities available. This was a struggle in Iowa as local landfills rejected taking the dead birds off farms.
David Swayne, director of the Southeast Poultry Research Lab for USDA's Agricultural Research Service, told senators the virus initially was not deadly to chickens, but the virus changed and became more virulent to chickens as it spread. While the virus began spreading from wild birds to farms, the epidemiological work later showed it was more likely the disease was spreading in the Midwest from farm to farm.
Senators repeatedly asked about the possibility of using a vaccine to combat the virus. Clifford and Swayne noted one of the biggest problems there comes from the reaction by trading partners that could further block exports of poultry over use of a vaccine.
USDA's standard protocol is to go in and euthanize all of the birds in a flock. The same would be true for other livestock affected by different diseases, such as if foot-and-mouth disease occurred. However, Clifford also said researchers and veterinarians may have to eventually come up with a new approach or do a better job developing vaccines.
"We in the world, worldwide, we need to stop eradicating animals," Clifford said.
Better biosecurity measures are needed, Swayne said. Poultry producers should be conducting thorough biosecurity assessments with the concerns that the virus will return this fall. Swayne noted producers need to objectively assess risks such as sharing equipment like manure spreaders between farms.
Producers testifying at the hearing highlighted different challenges between turkey operations and egg-laying facilities when it comes to indemnity and the ability to get an operation back into production. Iowa turkey farmer Brad Moline testified that two-thirds of his family's income has been wiped out because of the outbreak. His farm had 155,000 turkeys before the facility was hit.
"If we are lucky, we will be able to salvage this year with one flock that we hope to repopulate soon," Moline said. "Without APHIS indemnification payments, many farmers may have been forced to hang it up. We appreciate Congress and USDA for their continued support of indemnification. We will depend heavily on these payments until our next flock goes to market around Thanksgiving."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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