The deadly virus can be spread by wild birds — small poultry producers with backyard flocks are urged to take sanitary precautions
Avian influenza outbreaks in Canada and the U.S. have poultry producers on high alert, but biosecurity isn’t just a concern for commercial quota holders.
Industry-issued reminders for careful sanitization and transportation are also directed at smaller producers making farmgate sales and backyard flocks kept for show and sustenance.
A tight biosecurity plan is seen as key to minimizing the spread of the deadly avian influenza virus that’s resulted in the deaths of millions of birds in the U.S. this year.
Several U.S. states have declared states of emergency related to the H5N2 outbreak, a deadly strain of avian influenza that’s also appeared in Ontario and B.C. In the latter province, the virus was found in two backyard flocks.
Wild birds are believed to carry the virus, shedding it as they migrate north and south.
“People need to be aware that when these flocks are passing through that’s when the risk is there. It’s in the ground. It’s in the water and people can track it in and your birds can track it in from outside as well,” said Kathy Erickson, manager of field services with the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board. “Once you get them inside a barn or into a group of birds, it can travel through them very quickly.”
Ingrid Devisser of the Feather Board Command Centre said poultry boards maintain a database of backyard flocks through information gathered from chick and poult dealers.
The FBCC is an effort of Ontario’s four poultry marketing boards to co-ordinate the response to disease outbreaks.
“All flocks are vulnerable to disease, but pastured poultry is at a greater risk of direct contact with migratory bird droppings,” she told The Western Producer in an email. “All farmers need to employ excellent biosecurity protocols to minimize the risk of disease transmission into their flocks.”
Janeen Colvin raises pastured chickens and turkeys on her farm near Endeavour, Sask. An exemption allows her to operate outside of the province’s supply management regulations, giving her 4,000 non-quota chickens.
“It does make me nervous. Not that I really feel it’s a problem, but the fact that they’re going to start making us do crazy things on our farm that don’t line up with our principles,” said Colvin of Cool Springs Ranch.
Colvin contains her birds in a hoop house as they feed.
“We move them to a new piece of grass every day, so they’re not living in their own crap. They’re always on clean ground. I don’t know if a person can take much better precautions than keeping a clean environment,” said Colvin, who acknowledged the risk.
She acknowledged there may be some risk. “Yeah, they could go over a goose dropping. I’m sure it’s possible,” she said.
Glenn Black also pastures poultry on his farm in northern Ontario. He said he takes sanitary precautions and makes efforts to keep his work boots away from other footwear.
He also keeps guardian dogs to keep wildlife away.
“Most small flock farmers wouldn’t have that necessarily,” said Black, president of the Small Flock Poultry Farmers of Canada, an advocacy and lobby group with members in several provinces but with a focus on Ontario.
Earlier this year, the Chicken Farmers of Ontario publicly committed to communicate information with small producers during disease outbreaks.
DeVisser said an effort is made send information to both commercial quota holders and backyard flock owners, as well as hatcheries, dealers and brokers.
Information is posted online, but Black wishes more was done to alert owners of news.
“Certainly I think it’s a lot more out of sight, out of mind with most small flockers,” said Black.
Both Colvin and Black felt their poultry were no more vulnerable to disease than birds raised in large barns.
Colvin touted the strong performance of her animals, which are raised in a much different environment from those grown in a concentrated animal feeding operation.
“I’m in a small numbers, clean environment sort of scenario,” said Colvin. “I’m not so worried, but I could be proved wrong at some point. I have had no problems yet.”
During the outbreak in B.C., quota producers with pastured birds pulled them indoors.
“For any of our organic flocks that have to be outside, they were kept inside during avian influenza to minimize the risk of them being in contact with the wild bird flu,” said Erickson.
A manual produced by the B.C. ministry of agriculture for small flock producers advises owners to “think isolation,” instructing them to not share equipment, avoid introducing new stock to existing flocks and restricting vehicle movement and visitors around bird areas.
An industry-driven initiative in B.C. also produced an online biosecurity guide at protectmyflock.ca. The tool provides guidelines for farm layout and recommended practices for truck traffic and visitors.
“We want to keep them abreast of what’s going on so they can protect themselves and their operation,” said Erickson. “It doesn’t matter how big or small it is. We’re all in the same boat.”