(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — With avian influenza (colloquially known as “bird flu”) in multiple states, local chicken farmers are taking initial steps to protect their flocks, and they’re warning that poultry prices could rise.
Recently, avian influenza had been detected in commercial operations in Indiana and Kentucky, and in backyard chickens in Virginia. Then on Feb. 19 the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that a backyard flock on Long Island, New York, had tested positive for the high pathogenic disease.
While Long Island may seem like some distant place, wild birds migrate and local farmers aren’t taking chances.
“As a chicken farmer that’s been doing it for ‘100 years,’ (disease) is always on your mind,” said Rena Zicarelli of Ayers and Zicarelli Farm in Harborcreek.
While she hasn’t actually been a chicken farmer for 100 years, this isn’t her first rodeo. Zicarelli remembers avian influenza outbreaks in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2020.
“Even last fall, with migrating birds, they were saying not to feed them,” she said. “I keep tabs on what’s going on with wildlife. You never know — that could transfer to your chickens and turkeys.”
Currently, Ayers and Zicarelli Farm has about 75 chickens while they rebuild some of the facilities. Typically, the farm maintains about double that number. Zicarelli serves as a consultant for new backyard chicken farmers. She breeds and hatches chickens.
“I’m putting tarps on the yard so the birds who migrate don’t poo in the yard, and I’m not letting my chickens free range,” Zicarelli said. “You never know what these (migrating) birds are bringing in. And you try to keep rodents and racoons away.”
Meanwhile, Danielle Copley of Copley Farm in Waterford is struggling with the idea of “locking up” her flock. Copley farm is a small, family farm with a stated mission to “provide our animals with a happy, safe, healthy living environment…”
“We prefer to keep our farm natural as possible, which means we free range our egg-laying flock, and we’d hate to lock them up. But we’re considering locking them up and keeping them away from wild birds,” Copley said. “It’s a struggle because a chicken would be healthier in a natural environment outside and in the sun, with a natural diet of grass and bugs that keep their immune system healthy.
“It’s a catch 22 to figure out the best approach.”
In a Feb. 18 press release, The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture advised commonwealth farmers on how to protect their chickens from the disease, including, “Keep your birds indoors at high-risk times, including right now, as highly pathogenic avian influenza is circulating in the Atlantic Flyway.”
“While we have not seen HPAI (avian influenza) yet in Pennsylvania, we must continue efforts to actively safeguard the state against the threat of this damaging virus,” Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in a Feb. 18 press release.
Back in Harborcreek, Zicarelli described her mitigation efforts as akin to “regular maintenance.”
“It’s like trying to avoid the cold or COVID,” Zicarelli said, “It’s always on your mind.”
In Waterford, Copley Farm has about 100 egg-laying chickens and raises as many as 2,000 meat chickens during the warmer months.
For both local farmers, the smaller flocks could mean a smaller impact from disease.
“It’s more manageable at a smaller scale,” Copley said. “We keep an eye on the chickens and if we see one coming down with symptoms, we deal with that one bird.”
For larger operations, it’s not as simple.
“It could end up being a big deal,” Copley said. “It’s really affecting commercial poultry farms, which would be farmers who keep flocks in big pole barns. If one chicken gets it, they do end up culling the whole production.”
In the Dept. of Agriculture press release, Redding reiterated the department’s mission and warned of some hardships that may be on the forefront.
“The department’s Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services is on the forefront of controlling and eradicating diseases in livestock and poultry,” Redding said. “Preventing emerging infectious diseases is critical to preventing economic loss to farmers and the commonwealth.”
And while the agriculture secretary laments the potential economic loss to farmers, Copley said the impacts will hit all consumers who shop for their meat in grocery stores.
“We’re expecting chicken prices to skyrocket at the store because of all the culling that’s happening right now,” Copley said. “It’s supply and demand. The commercial supply is going to be down, so prices are expected to increase on chickens. That’s the next step, and people should be prepared.”
A 2015 outbreak of avian influenza led producers to kill 33 million egg-laying hens in Iowa, the nation’s leading egg producer, and 9 million birds in Minnesota, the nation’s leading turkey producer, with smaller outbreaks in Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The disease caused egg and turkey prices across the country to soar for months, with the cost of eggs up 61% at one point and prices for boneless, skinless turkey breasts rising 75% between May and July 2015.
“It’s definitely considered a period of high risk now that we have a confirmed case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the commercial poultry industry,” said Dr. Denise Heard, a poultry veterinarian and vice president of research for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. “I feel positive that we can tackle this situation better and I have my fingers crossed that this will be an isolated case, however, I would hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.”
Copley said it’s one of many struggles consumers are facing.
“In the past couple years, so much has popped up. People have had to pay close attention and pivot to simply feed our families and keep our diets healthy,” Copley said. “It’s been an interesting time for sure.”
A local farmer, Copley said the best way consumers can protect themselves from supply chain interruptions is to buy local.
“I’m always trying to help people make the connection between having a local farm and having food security. If your chicken isn’t coming from one of those huge production plants in (some other state), you’ll be less likely to be affected by this,” Copley said. “You’ll more than likely notice the empty space in the grocery store coolers, but you’ll have a chicken in your freezer.
“The shorter the supply chain is, the greater the food security.”
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.