Alberta poultry producers are bracing for more outbreaks of a highly transmissible and deadly version of avian flu, which has already taken a toll on flocks in the province.
The highly pathogenic avian influenza strain H5N1, which is spreading rapidly across Canada, has been detected in 18 Alberta poultry operations since the province’s first case was confirmed in Mountain View County on April 6.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said Tuesday that cases have been detected in two small herds and 16 commercial herds in Alberta.
As of April 21, there were active outbreaks in 12 flocks of Alberta, accounting for an estimated 340,000 infected birds – the most in any province.
As cases continue to mount, bird farmers are facing losses and doing what they can to keep the infection out of their barns.
“It’s an incredibly stressful time,” said David Hyink, a poultry farmer who operates a broiler chicken operation near Lacombe, Alta., 125 kilometers south of Edmonton.
“We are being very cautious.”
Hink inspects four of its barns daily for signs of disease from one of its 135,000 chickens.
Most forms of avian flu are mild but the H5N1 strain can cause severe illness and death in wild and domestic birds.
The disease is not considered a significant concern for humans, but the infection can wipe out the herd within a few days.
With no treatment, an entire herd must be harvested to control the infection.
“It’s a very dangerous disease for birds,” said Hink, who also serves as president of the Alberta Chicken Producers, the organization that regulates broiler chicken production in the province.
“Once it swarms, it will spread rapidly. It will cause great death in the barn.
“In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of birds will need to be destroyed.”
The CFIA says that 2022 has been unprecedented for the spread of avian flu around the world.
Migratory birds are believed to be responsible for the spread across Canada. As wild birds continue to fly north for the summer, more cases are expected to emerge.
Outbreaks have also been confirmed at poultry farms in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
No cases have been found in humans in North America.
The CFIA has found no evidence of farm-to-farm transmission, but more research is needed, said Jeff Notenbomer, who owns Willow Creek Poultry, a broiler-breeding operation in Monarch, Alta., near Lethbridge.
He is also president of the Alberta Hatching Egg Producers, which controls the production of broiler hatching in the province.
Notenbomer said he hoped that biosafety protocols and the distance between most farms in Alberta would provide a safety net against infection.
“We are seeing that it is spreading much faster than we were expecting,” he said. “It’s bothering us so much. How’s it spreading? How’s it going from barn to barn?”
Notenbomer compares the spike in avian flu cases to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when cases were on the rise, protocols were being strictly enforced and the source of transmission was unclear.
“I think we need to see two weeks without positive [case] Before I do I’ll take a deep breath.”
Operators are eligible for compensation for birds killed on the basis of market value. But the formula doesn’t account for the downtime faced by farmers after the outbreak, Notenbomer said.
Nottenbomer’s farm houses about 25,000 chickens and produces about 3.5 million fertilized eggs each year.
He said it would take up to two years for hatcheries like his to reach full production again.
The outbreaks have caused supply chain issues, import restrictions and rising prices elsewhere, but it is unclear whether the current outbreak will affect Canadian consumers.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada say a number of factors are driving up food prices, so it is difficult to find a direct link between the virus and the cost of eggs and poultry.
Notenbomer said Canadian industry should be better equipped to absorb the shock of any disruption caused by the support provided by the country’s supply chain management system.
“When a farm goes down, everything has to be done to make the necessary adjustments to keep it going, but the more cases there are, the harder it becomes,” he said.
“Supply is stagnant but I’m panicking because it’s spreading.”
Avian influenza is a reportable disease in Canada. Federal inspectors respond to outbreaks by establishing quarantines and ordering the destruction of all birds that may have been exposed.
Poultry veterinarian Teryn Girard, who works with Prairie Swine Health Services and Cargill, has worked with most Alberta farms experiencing outbreaks.
He said that spring is flu season for birds and the industry was ready but this virus is behaving differently.
Farmers are wondering who can be killed next.
This virus is not reading the textbook.— Teryn Girard
“There have been too many reports of dead migratory birds,” she said. “It is he who has shown us that this virus is not reading the textbook.”
Nicole Thiessen, owner of Button Quail and Poultry in Rochfort Bridge, Alta., sold most of her birds last month.
He had over 3,000 quails and 80 laying hens, but now only 20 birds remain.
Thiessen said, “In winter our farms have seen a large number of crows and a decrease in their numbers.” “That was the first, big concern.”
Thiessen said she was relieved before the outbreak began.
“I don’t think you can sell a bird to save your life right now.”