Chicken house

In this file photo from 2009, hens at a Lancaster County poultry operation chow down as their eggs move along a conveyor belt.

Up in the prairie pothole states of the Midwest and in southern Canada, wild ducks and geese are getting ready to head east and south to wintering grounds.

Here in Lancaster County, the top laying-hen county in the country, that great winged migration has poultry farmers holding their breaths.

They’re hoping that the birds won’t carry to Pennsylvania a deadly avian flu virus that’s already killed or caused the culling of nearly 60 million chickens and turkeys since spring in 21 states in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

“All of the discussion now is focusing on the threat of what can happen this fall and about the migration,” says Melissa Sankey, assistant vice president of the PennAg Poultry Council, Pennsylvania's main poultry industry group.

“There is concern that in late August and early September when it starts that it could potentially come to Pennsylvania. However, nobody knows for sure and industry producers are diligently practicing good biosecurity practices.”

The upcoming migration is of such concern because it’s pretty well established by now that the current epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza was carried to the U.S. by migratory birds that picked up the disease in Russia, then spread it as they mixed with waterfowl that migrated to western parts of the country.

The fears are ramping up now because millions of waterfowl have been mingling in summer breeding grounds. Soon, perhaps already and certainly by the fall, some of those birds will migrate along the Atlantic Flyway, an aerial highway for birds that includes all of Pennsylvania.

'A good chance'

“Certainly there’s a good chance” that migratory waterfowl will spread the disease to Pennsylvania, says Margaret Brittingham, a wildlife specialist with Penn State Extension.

Asked to be more specific about prospects of waterfowl carrying the disease to Pennsylvania, Brittingham says, “I think it’s probably a matter of time.”

The key, she says, will be if infected birds can be discovered quickly and steps taken to set up quarantines before the disease is spread to other flocks by people, trucks and equipment that moves from farm to farm.

That’s why Gov. Tom Wolf recently approved a special allotment of $3.5 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for mounting a response to any initial outbreak.

“What we have learned from other states, such as Iowa and Minnesota, is that acting quickly is imperative to containing the virus and minimizing its spread,” Russell Redding, state agriculture secretary, said this week.

In Lancaster County and elsewhere, that means on-farm manager and traveling maintenance workers are wearing special protective suits and disposable booties whenever they set foot on farms and enter and leave poultry houses. Rubber boots and tires are being disinfected.

“Nobody wants to be that first person that’s identified with the avian flu,” says Sankey. “We in Pennsylvania can’t be caught being lazy.”

Since most poultry operations are enclosed, the fear is not so much that infected migratory waterfowl will directly mix with poultry, but that someone will step in or drive through droppings and carry it inside or to another farm.

'Virus can survive weeks'

The virus can last for about two weeks on the ground in the right conditions, notes Brittingham.

If infected birds are found, an entire flock will quickly be euthanized, either with machines that gas bird houses with carbon dioxide or a machine called a depopulation foamer that spreads a toxic foam on the floor that asphyxiates the birds.

It’s a grisly image. But Lancaster County poultry farmers well remember the last time such a highly contagious virus came here, in 1983 and 1984. Some 17 million birds were lost, many of them in Lancaster County, a $65 million setback to the state’s economy.

Already since the latest outbreak, 18 countries have banned poultry and eggs from the U.S.      

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced earlier this week that a strain of vaccine against the virus has been developed and is being tested.

Meanwhile, there is some concern that the virus spreading to Pennsylvania will harm wild game populations of pheasants, grouse and turkeys, as well as raptors.

But in an interview with LNP, Justin Brown, wildlife veterinarian with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said, “There’s a lot we don’t know about this virus. As far as impacts on populations, I think probably we’d be looking at some sporadic mortality, but not widespread population impacts.”