Keeping bird flu out of Putnam County

Bird flu is spread easily; Georgia hit for first time


By Lynn Hobbs


A step onto the golf course, walking around any pond or lake, fertilizing your garden with a neighbor’s chicken litter, buying or swapping chickens at a flea market – any one of these routine activities now has the potential to wipe out Putnam County’s $50 million egg production industry.

“All these things come into play and there are so many links people don’t think about,” Putnam County Cooperative Extension Agent Keith Fielder said while discussing the Avian influenza with The Eatonton Messenger. “People are so casual about it because they don’t even realize how easily and casually it can be transported. Avian influenza is no threat to humans, just to chickens; but humans can transport it. You can even pick it up at the grocery store, anywhere.”

Avian influenza, some forms of which are known as “bird flu,” broke out in Iowa several years back and completely destroyed Iowa’s egg industry, creating a shortage of eggs and an increase in egg prices across the nation, Fielder said.

A high-pathogenic form of the virus was confirmed in Tennessee last month, resulting in 145,000 chickens being destroyed. Milder versions of Avian influenza were confirmed in recent weeks in Alabama, Kentucky and lastly, Georgia. The end of March, about 18,000 chickens had to be destroyed as a precautionary measure at a Chattooga County commercial farm after the flock tested positive for a mild strain of the flu, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

“It faded away in the wintertime in the U.S., but waterfowl migration brought it back,” Fielder explained. “This is the first time it has ever been in Georgia.” Any domestic poultry – chicken, turkey and duck, as well as wild turkey – are susceptible to it, he added.

Although Georgia’s case was a low-pathogenic, that “low can easily mutate to a high-pathogenic form,” Fielder said. The virus only is deadly to poultry flocks in its high-pathogenic form. The nation’s food chain has not been affected and the Avian flu rarely spreads to humans, he added.

Because the poultry industry contributed $38 billion to Georgia’s economy in 2014 (via the production of broilers and eggs) and the jobs of approximately 138,000 Georgians depend on the industry, according to the Georgia Poultry Federation, state officials “are taking it real seriously,” Fielder said.

Effective March 16, State Veterinarian Robert M. Cobb Jr.  suspended all poultry exhibitions, shows, sales (flea markets, auction markets), swaps and meets in Georgia. Included in the suspension is the sale of eggs and baby chicks that do not come from a National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) Avian Influenza (AI) Clean approved facility, or that are moved from an approved facility to an unapproved facility and then offered for resale.

The state also has other biosecurity measures in place for both commercial and backyard poultry flocks, including:

  • All coops and runs must be covered. Free range chickens should be restricted to one area, and “the folks should be ever vigilant to keep geese and wild ducks off their property,” Fielder said. If an infected duck or goose comes to the pond or lake, then walks or sits along the grass; and the chicken, or a person who works with the chickens, walks through that same place, then the virus can be transmitted.
  • Wear dedicated clothing and shoes. “Wear special clothing and shoes to work with the birds and then leave the clothing/shoes there,” Fielder advised. “And you need to lock up your runs so no one else can get in there and so your birds cannot get out.” If you walk through where the geese have been, whether it’s out on the golf course, duck hunting or around your pond, and then you put your feet on the floorboard of your car, then you’ve left the Avian influenza on the floorboard of your car. Then, whatever shoes you wear next in your car can transport that virus wherever you go. It gets on someone else’s shoes, and if they have access to chickens, then it spreads, he said.
  • Wash hands before entering and when leaving the coop.
  • Clean and disinfect equipment in contact with birds or droppings. This includes buckets, boots, rakes, wheelbarrows, trucks, trailers, or even chicken litter you get from your neighbor to put in the garden. “All those things come into play,” Fielder said.
  • Change food and water daily. “Wild birds such as songbirds help themselves to your chicken food and water; and they’ve been in contact with water fowl, so they’ve just contaminated your chickens,” Fielder said, noting that’s the reason to cover chicken runs.
  • Remove birdhouses, bird feeders and birdbaths (for the same reason above).
  • Backyard flock owners should refrain from moving birds offsite or introducing new birds.
  • Avoid feed stores, veterinarian offices, the county extension office and other places with small flocks or people who care for small flocks. “The backyard folks think ‘oh, it’s just commercial folks; but every outbreak is traced back to a backyard flock,” Fielder said. “It is that virulent and it is that serious.” The extension agent said if he has someone call with a chicken question or problem, he handles it over the phone these days, to keep from contaminating his office.
  • Don’t cuddle with your chickens. “A lot of people that have small flocks cuddle with the chickens, hug and kiss them. Don’t do that,” Fielder commented. “We don’t think it transfers to humans, but you could unwittingly transfer it to something else.”

Symptoms of Avian influenza are chickens with a runny nose, discharge from the nose, mouth or eyes, or that are just acting sick in general. Notify Fielder immediately at 706-485-4151 if your chicken exhibits these symptoms, so the chicken can be checked, he said.

Workers at Putnam County’s two commercial egg-producing farms are following all these rules and more, Fielder said, noting he can no longer visit the farms because his job makes him a potential transporter of the virus. Neither farm has the Avian influenza.

Cal-Maine Foods, with facilities in 15 states including one on both sides of the Jasper-Putnam county line, is the largest producer of shell eggs in the U.S., according to its website. Fielder said the Shady Dale farm produces table eggs.

Although its address is Madison because its entrance is in Morgan County, Rose Acre Farm is located in Putnam County. Rose Acre is the second-largest producer of eggs in the U.S., according to its website, with 17 facilities in six states. Rose Acre produces white and brown table eggs from cage-free or conventionally raised hens; Omega 3, vegetarian and other nutritionally enhanced eggs; liquid eggs, dried eggs and egg protein powder.


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