Flu casts long shadow over Minnesota counties

Published 10:38 am Friday, May 15, 2015

By Mark Zdechlik

MPR.org/90.1 FM

KERKHOVEN — In a small building on a Swift County farm, 700 young chickens and chicks share tight quarters.

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Jared Krieger, a 19-year-old who is getting his start in farming, is worried — well aware the threat of avian flu is all around him. So far, seven farms have been hit by the virus in Swift County, costing farmers more than 500,000 turkeys.

“There’s been some barns getting closer and closer that have been infected and it’s getting me a little more nervous,” Krieger said.

Krieger’s farm in the eastern part of the county is near the border with Kandiyohi County, the epicenter of the outbreak in Minnesota. So far, avian flu has been detected on 32 farms there, where nearly 1.3 million turkeys have been destroyed. Despite all of the rotting carcasses in the area, there’s no discernible odor.

The H5N2 highly pathogenic avian influenza has spread so rapidly that it poses a huge concern for farmers. More than 5.6 million birds in Minnesota’s commercial and domestic poultry flocks have died or been killed to prevent its spread.

But the spread of avian flu in Minnesota appears to be slowing, Minnesota Board of Animal Health officials said Wednesday. By this time last week, nine new outbreaks had been reported. So far this week, investigators have identified only three more.

Still, no one knows where the disease fatal to poultry will appear next or when officials will get it under control.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty surrounding the H5N2 virus is casting a huge shadow over the state’s hardest-hit area.

Although U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors recently confirmed that Krieger’s flock was healthy, news he found reassuring, the experience was unsettling.

“You know, it’s kind of weird having guys walking around in white suits testing your chickens,” he said.

Krieger’s concerns about the bird flu led him to scuttle his plan to let his chickens outside so they would have a little more space. He doesn’t want to take any chances of exposing them to the H5N2 virus.

“I’ve got a lot of money tied up in these chickens and I don’t want to risk … leaving them outside and having it transferred through wild birds, or through the air or however it’s transferring,” said Krieger, who is adding indoor space. “I want to give them ample enough room, so I’m going to put them upstairs in the hayloft.”

But all Krieger can do is hope confining his birds will be enough to protect them from a disease that mysteriously is making its way into barns.

He has a lot at stake. He’s counting on income from selling eggs this summer to pay the mortgage on his new farm.

So far, the avian flu outbreak in Minnesota has hit turkey farmers much harder than chicken producers. More than 4 million turkeys have been lost to the virus, compared to more than 1.5 million chickens.

The scale of the devastation in Minnesota could be much worse given what has happened in Iowa, where more than 25.5 million birds — mostly egg laying chickens — have been lost.

In Kerkhoven, a couple of miles from Jared Krieger’s farm, people are concerned about contracting the virus. They are fearful even though the strain currently circulating in the United States is not considered to be a risk to humans, said Scott Lamecker, who owns the general store there.

Still, officials can’t entirely rule out the possibility that it could move to people.

“They told us to be, you know, not be alarmed if we end up getting called to a turkey facility and we see people in hazmat suits,” said Lamecker, also an emergency medical technician and firefighter.

Although that call has not come yet, Lamecker can’t help but be more worried about what the avian flu outbreak will do to the economy in areas where poultry production is big business.

“It’s going to affect me because these farmers that don’t have birds, you know, they don’t have money to spend,” he said. “It’s just a domino effect that this virus has on the community.”

Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl said such financial worries are taking a big emotional toll on people.

“I don’t think any one of us would have predicted that this was going to keep growing this big,” he said.

Kleindl said the economic effect of avian flu on residents is like that of a natural disaster. But at least when a tornado comes and goes, he said, it’s over. No one knows when or if the avian flu will go away.