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One in eight of Iowa’s laying hens dies in bird flu outbreaks

In less than three weeks, more than 10 million egg-laying hens have died in outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) across the country. The casualties included 13% — one in eight — of laying hens in Iowa, the No. 1 egg-producing state, said the Agriculture Department on Monday.

An egg farm in northwestern Iowa suffered the largest outbreak yet — 5.3 million hens. Three other cases of the viral disease were reported over the weekend, one in a flock of 156,800 broiler chickens in Kent County, Delaware, and two in backyard flocks in Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Lincoln County, Maine.

“High path” bird flu has been identified in 17 states this year, in the first appearance of HPAI in domestic flocks in two years. There have been 42 outbreaks, including five on egg farms in Iowa, Maryland, and Wisconsin. There were 390 million laying hens in the U.S., so this year’s losses equal 2.6% of the nation’s laying flock.

“Flock owners should prevent contact between their birds and wild birds and report sick birds or unusual deaths to state/federal officials,” said the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Two outbreaks in laying flocks have been reported in the state, totaling 6.2 million of the state’s 46.3 million laying hens.

More than 50 million chickens and turkeys died in a bird flu epidemic in 2014-15. Iowa and Minnesota were hit the hardest. Nationwide, losses included 12% of the hens laying eggs for human consumption and 8% of turkeys, according to a 2017 USDA report. “In response to this historic animal-disease event, many destination markets for U.S. poultry commodities levied trade restrictions on U.S. poultry exports, distorting markets and exacerbating economic losses.”

HPAI is highly contagious and can quickly wipe out a flock, so agricultural officials are ruthless in killing all birds in an infected flock in hopes of preventing spread of the disease. As a standard practice, nearby flocks are tested for HPAI and the neighborhood is put under surveillance for signs of bird flu.

Overall, 12.9 million birds, including turkeys, laying hens, broiler chickens, and backyard flocks, have died in HPAI outbreaks, which began in early February.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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