You’ve likely seen it splashed across the headlines or now even buried on page four of the national news. You may catch a glimpse of something about it on Twitter, or hear about it at your local farmers market. Perhaps you heard a clip on the radio after you went through the local drive thru, and you hesitated as you brought your chicken sandwich to your mouth.
Avian influenza, commonly called AI, is a hot topic in the poultry world these days. Farmers that raise chickens and turkeys for meat and eggs are as sensitive and vigilant about AI as the general public is regarding an outbreak of human disease, such as Ebola or the Zika virus. This is a disease that can wipe out entire flocks – if not by transmission – by planned euthanasia to prevent the spread of the disease. An outbreak of AI strikes chords of caution and anxiety in the heart of poultry farmers all around the U.S., who dealt with catastrophic outbreaks and loss in Minnesota and the Midwest only a few short years ago.
With recent news splashes and reports of positive Avian Influenza strains found in wild birds and domestic birds, the notes of caution have started to play for both farmers and consumers. Those not familiar with raising chickens or turkeys wonder what happens in our poultry houses – often questioning why the animals are kept inside and why it’s a restricted area to others. So, you turn to YouTube, or Facebook, or the latest comment string on a headlining article regarding poultry, and form decisions based on what you can find at a moment’s notice.
While we can’t erase the devastation of an AI outbreak, and we certainly can’t replace the grief for the farm families that have dealt with loss of their animals and livelihood, we can be transparent. As farmers, we want to pull back the veil around the term “biosecurity,” and have open conversations about what we do to prevent disease and keep our birds safe. We can speak truthfully about how the chords of caution and anxiety start to play when we think about something hurting our birds. How we do our best each day to create a safe and nurturing environment for our animals, and how we teach our children about animal care and welfare being a top priority.
In 2011, President Obama signed into law the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety and Modernization Act. This was part of a general shift in agriculture to go from a reactive to proactive approach for food safety. The guidance put forth over generations by the FDA and USDA are key to laying groundwork for industry rules and regulations, but it is the actual implementation of these guidelines on farms and processing plants that help coin the term biosecurity for poultry farms like ours across the nation.
From the signage on our buildings to the hygiene measures for each person (and vehicle) that visits the farm – all have a part in keeping our chickens safe. We’re highly conscious of any possible interaction with wild birds or backyard poultry flocks, and the risks that they may transfer to our domestic flock. Our birds are grown in safe surroundings, free from the worry of predators, with constant access to food and water. The temperature changes in the houses based on the chickens age and size, regulated by multiple heaters and a cooling system. Ventilation is constant.
When I married into the farm over a decade ago, I knew nothing about agriculture. I read headlines and formed opinions based on media alone. Only after stepping onto the farm and experiencing raising chickens did I fully understand the daily efforts by farmers in caring for their animals – with the passionate commitment of raising a valuable and nutritious protein source for another human. I’ve seen biosecurity measures continually improve on the farm and am proud of the technology and industry advancements that help enhance today’s SMART Farm and raise a stronger, healthier bird.
Avian Influenza, or any disease that affects a food source, can strike chords of fear and concern. But it’s our duty to start the conversation about what we’re doing to safeguard your food that’s being grown and raised by American farmers. We’re proud of what we do!
Lauren Arbogast, who serves as one of USFRA’s Faces of Farming & Ranching, farms with her husband Brian and two sons on their diverse operation in Rockingham County, Virginia, consisting of five houses of chickens (broilers), a cow/calf herd of 450, a calf backgrounding site of 400, and crop rotations. Read her blog, and find her online at @PaintTheTownAg.
All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.