State's Poultry Industry Holding Its Breath


One chicken with Avian Flu could spell economic disaster spreading far beyond any single farm at which the virus might be detected. 
One chicken with Avian Flu could spell economic disaster spreading far beyond any single farm at which the virus might be detected.  (Shutterstock)

Arkansas had not recorded any cases of avian influenza as of Wednesday, but growers, integrators and their advocates are working hard to keep the state free of the economically devastating disease. 

In the ongoing nationwide outbreak, avian influenza has been detected in half the states that border Arkansas. One case could spell economic disaster spreading far beyond any single farm at which the virus might be detected. The best way to prevent such losses is to follow strict biosecurity protocols, a grower, two integrators, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and a P representative told Arkansas Business. 

Those protocols include:

  • Limiting visitors to farms, because visitors could carry the virus in on their tires, shoes or clothing.
  • Having farmers and workers change shoes and clothing when leaving and coming back to farms; and
  • Having farmers and workers disinfect shoes before entering a grow house using a bath that contains iodine or liquid or powder bleach in the control room of a poultry house.

On March 23, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture implemented an emergency rule that will be effective for 120 days. It prohibits the exhibition of poultry and waterfowl, requires that free range and backyard poultry be confined under roof or inside structures to prevent contamination from infected migratory birds flying overhead or direct exposure to wild birds, and prohibits movement of poultry or domestic waterfowl from or within an affected area. Backyard poultry refers to birds that are raised for home use or exhibition but are not sold. 

Preventing infection with a vaccine is an impractical option, according to Terry Conger, a USDA poultry health specialist and epidemiologist. He said the virus mutates, so — like the human flu vaccine — a new version would have to be made each year, and that would be prohibitively expensive. 

Animal vaccine maker Pacific GeneTech, which has announced plans to bring its U.S. headquarters and a biotechnology manufacturing center to northwest Arkansas, has worked on avian influenza vaccines in the past but slowed down that work because there was not sufficient interest from the poultry industry, spokesperson Cindy Tsang said by email.

This graphic reflects the number of birds on confirmed infected premises as of May 25. The bars reflect most recent 4 months (numbers may not add up to total).
This graphic reflects the number of birds on confirmed infected premises as of May 25. The bars reflect most recent 4 months (numbers may not add up to total). (USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service)

‘The Worst Incursion’

So far, 38 million birds have been affected by the avian influenza this year, either because they were infected or because they were in a flock containing infected birds and were euthanized, Conger said. 

More than 300 flocks in 35 states have tested positive, compared with 232 flocks in 21 states in 2014-15. These numbers make this year’s outbreak “the worst foreign animal disease incursion in the history of the United States.”

The poultry industry is big business in Arkansas, which ranks third nationally in broiler production, according to the Poultry Federation. It said that, in 2020, the state’s poultry industry provided $3.7 billion, or 50%, of the total agricultural cash receipts.

But the state is faring better so far this year than in 2014-15, Conger said. One commercial turkey flock in the state, in Boone County, was confirmed as infected then, he said.

Another saving grace for the state is that the outbreak is approaching its end. The danger should pass next month or in July as temperatures rise and wild birds finish migrating south, Conger said.

“We don’t draw an easy breath till it’s gone,” said Chris Meador, who runs nine broiler houses, growing birds for integrator Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale. 

Flocks containing infected birds are euthanized to stop the spread but the farmer managing the flock wouldn’t be the only one affected, he said. One case would prompt months of testing and possibly euthanasia at farms within a certain mile radius of the infected farm.

Farmers in that radius could be out six to eight months of revenue that they need to pay for utilities, labor, bank loans and to support their families, he said.

“And it’ll go all the way back to a big company like Tyson or George’s,” said John Bailey, director of regulatory affairs for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, referring to George’s Inc. of Springdale.

He said his organization has been notifying its members about rule changes and educating them on biosecurity. The USDA held two biosecurity webinar series — one for managers of commercial flocks and the other for managers of backyard flocks — in late March. Most of the attendees were from Arkansas.

Integrators must and are spreading the word, too, Bailey said. “If it gets into Arkansas, I think in the past we’ve seen some impacts to the supply chain … We want to keep it out of Arkansas,” he said.

Integrator Peco Foods of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which operates several locations in northeast Arkansas, said in an emailed statement that it is adhering to strict biosecurity procedures that include limiting access at all facilities to essential personnel and encouraging all of its growers to do the same.

“Biosecurity is not just a set of principles at Peco Foods, it’s a state of mind, and the safety of our team members, producers and customers around the world is our top priority,” the statement reads.

David Bray, group president of poultry at Tyson, said during the company’s May 9 earnings call that Tyson is watching the avian flu outbreak closely and is testing every flock before it leaves the farm.

Meador said avian influenza has a 14-day incubation period, so a farmer may not know for two weeks that they have a problem. That means that their “only defense is a good offense … It gets closer to Arkansas and you just kind of cringe because you just don’t know when the next one is going to be,” he said. 

Meador is limiting traffic in and out of his farm, providing footwear that is only to be worn where his poultry is, changing shoebaths daily instead of every three days, and requiring service personnel to wear plastic sleeves on their boots and suits. He also installed a sign telling drivers not to pull onto his farm and is making spray disinfectant readily available.

Preparing for the Worst

If the worst happens, there are government programs to help farmers dispose of the infected flocks that can’t leave their farms, Meador said. Integrators might also be able to help them, and most farmers are financed by local banks that are willing to rework their debt obligations, he said. 

Meador said the Arkansas Farm Bureau has been a good advocate and is working on a program resembling an insurance policy that would cover revenue lost by a farmer because of an avian flu infection. 

There are existing insurance policy add-ons that farmers could use to recoup their losses, too, he said.

Bailey, with the Arkansas Farm Bureau, sees a need for a policy that ensures farmers don’t lose everything because they have to euthanize a flock infected with the virus. His organization is hoping to back such a policy in December.