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Women in Ag: Where Has the Poultry Gone?

Last week I visited one of North Carolina’s county fairs. I walked into the livestock barn and stopped in my tracks. Across the barn, I could see cages filled with poultry.


What about the sight of birds at the fair caused me stop and do a double take? After all, poultry shows are common at most county fairs in our state. It’s an opportunity for youth and adults to enter the chickens, quail, turkeys, ducks, and other birds they raise for a chance at the blue ribbon.


Since August 15, there have been no blue ribbons at any county fair, the Mountain Sate fair, or the North Carolina State Fair for any poultry. There have been no exhibits featuring live birds. One organization canceled its fall farm tour. There will be no poultry auctions or events where people and live birds commingle until January 15, 2016.


Why was this ban put into place? The threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). This virus has not been found on the East Coast yet, but as birds begin their migration, the threat is real. As a result, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) decided, after much consideration, to enact a ban on live bird shows and auctions through the migratory season.  


I’m sure the ban was a disappointment to the many people who enter birds in a county or state fair. I talked with one county fair manager this week who told me that agriculture entries are lower this year, but many people who entered their crops also entered poultry. Since they couldn’t enter their birds, they didn’t enter anything.


The disappointment and lower fair entries are a small price to pay if taking these actions helps protect the poultry industry in our state. North Carolina ranks second in the U.S. in turkey production, fourth in broilers (chickens raised for meat), and ninth in eggs. HPAI has affected over 20 states since December, taking the lives of more than 50 million birds.


Fellow Women in Agriculture blogger Lara Durban has written some fantastic posts about HPAI, which you can read on the website.


In addition to canceling live poultry shows and sales, North Carolina is requiring all poultry owners, regardless if they own one bird or thousands, to register with NCFarmID. The purpose of this registry is so, in the event of an outbreak, state officials can communicate with poultry owners in the quarantine zone.  


I’ve read numerous articles about the registry, and the comments are interesting. Many people with backyard flocks don’t believe it’s the state’s business to know anything about their birds. Some people are afraid that, in the event of a positive HPAI case, all birds in an area will be euthanized.  Other comments indicate that backyard flocks are not affected by HPAI.


All these beliefs are wrong. If we do see a case of HPAI in our state, officials need to know where birds are so they can communicate with owners, monitor flocks, and test for additional outbreaks.  Birds within a quarantine zone around a positive case will be tested but not euthanized unless the result is positive. As you can read in one of Lara’s posts, birds raised in confinement and outdoors have been affected by HPAI.


It’s important to note that HPAI is not a food safety issue. According to the website NCDA&CS set up to address HPAI concerns, most birds die within 24 hours of showing symptoms, so they won’t ever make it into the food chain. Sick birds are not processed for consumption. Infected laying hens typically stop laying eggs, and the ones she does lay will not make the grade because the shell is weak and misshapen. It is also important to cook all poultry or egg products to the proper temperature.  


HPAI has had devastating effects on the poultry industry in the U.S. Even though we don’t have poultry on our farm, we raise crops that can be fed to poultry. With a lower bird population, there is less demand for poultry feed. Not to mention the effect we are seeing at the grocery store as prices for chickens, turkeys, and eggs rise. Most importantly, and probably least mentioned, is the psychological effect on the men and women who have lost their flocks.


By the way, remember those cages of birds I saw at the county fair that stopped me in my tracks? Look closely at the photo I used for this post. Every cage had a stuffed animal - chickens, ducks, pigeons, and other toy birds inside. What a great way to keep poultry a part of the fair and let fairgoers know, through signage, why the shows were cancelled.


How has HPAI affected your state?

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