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Bird flu fears increase with spring migration

FILE - Red Star chickens roost in their coop, Jan. 10, 2023, at Historic Wagner Farm in Glenview, Ill. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)
FILE - Red Star chickens roost in their coop, Jan. 10, 2023, at Historic Wagner Farm in Glenview, Ill. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)
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The bird flu has wiped out nearly 60 million farm birds over the last year, and there's the worry that another surge could be coming with spring migration.

"That's a big concern when you got ... millions of ducks and geese coming through that area," Oklahoma State University agriculture economist Rodney Holcomb said of wild flock migration, which runs between February and May.

“You have some that are infected and next thing you know, some way or another, it's transmitted to some of those (farm) flocks in the area,” he said.

Coupled with inflation, the bird flu has sent prices for eggs and broilers soaring.

A pound of chicken has jumped from $1.62 last January to $1.86 this January.

That’s about a 15% increase.

A dozen large grade-A eggs have skyrocketed from $1.93 last January to $4.82 this January.

That’s a 150% increase.

Holcomb said it takes longer to recoup egg-laying capacity when a flock is hit by a flu outbreak.

The boilers we eat are a composite breed, he said.

Farmers have bred broilers to “grow fast and be meaty young birds by eight weeks.”

Holcomb said, by contrast, it can take six months to raise a productive egg-laying hen.

“When you lose 40-some-odd-million of those at one time, it's just going to take a while to get them back,” he said.

The current outbreak, which first hit commercial and backyard flocks last February, has impacted farms in 47 states. Usually, the virus would die out over the summer. That didn’t happen this time, with high activity continuing through the fall, Holcomb said.

There’s no solid figure for the current economic impact on farms, but The Associated Press reported the figure at more than $1 billion, citing an agricultural economist.

The last significant bird flu outbreak, in 2015, reportedly cost the industry around $3 billion.

We’ve lost more birds this time around, but the economic toll on the industry hasn’t been as bad because of lessons learned last time.

Holcomb said farmers are better at detecting the virus and taking swift action to stem the spread.

“As soon as you catch a sign of any of this in a flock of birds, then just a matter of time until they're all hit,” he said. “So, to prevent it from spreading, that entire flock is put down.”

The risk to humans remains very low, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Bird flu “genetic material” was only detected in a specimen from one American who took part in poultry culling activities, and the CDC says he was likely not infected with the virus.

The World Health Organization also says the risk to humans is low, noting only “rare and non-sustained transmission” to humans since the highly pathogenic H5N1 emerged over 25 years ago.

But the WHO said we can’t assume that will stay the case and must prepare for any change.

The CDC says that some other mammals, such as mink, are much more susceptible to this virus than people.

And, as such, there have been recent reports of mammals including minks, otters, foxes and sea lions infected with the bird flu.

As for domestic poultry producers, they’ll monitor for infections that might stem from migrating birds, such as waterfowl, that end up in the same grain fields or water sources used for their flocks.

How long this outbreak will last is “the big unknown,” Holcomb said.

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“We just don't have a good handle on how fast it could spread and how far it could spread,” he said.

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