HPAI, spread by wild waterfowl in Ohio, offers lessons for other species of wildlife and managing foreign animal diseases.

Lessons learned from HPAI

By Joel Penhorwood and Matt Reese

Ohio continues to face concerns regarding high path avian influenza (HPAI) after dealing with some devastating losses last year in the state’s poultry industry. 

The virus is still causing problems around the country with 15 states dealing with HPAI issues in February and March in commercial and backyard poultry flocks. Pennsylvania has been the worst hit with over 75,000 birds affected in late February and early March, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. This winter, though, Ohio has been in the clear in terms of commercial and backyard poultry flocks after facing some tough situations last summer and fall. A wild, deceased bald eagle was found in Clermont County with HPAI in Clairmont County in November of 2022 and some additional wild waterfowl tested positive in Lake County in March.

While they were challenging, Ohio’s HPAI issues with poultry last year did serve as examples in the event of the future arrival of HPAI or other foreign animal diseases in the future. Dennis Summers, DVM, Ohio’s State Veterinarian, spoke at the Ohio Pork Congress and shared some lessons learned from HPAI in Ohio in 2022.

“I want to be very transparent with our livestock industries. We got through it but there are ways we can streamline this a little bit better,” Summers said. “We definitely have been battle hardened here in Ohio. We were a victim of HPAI both on backyard flocks and within our commercial sector as well. We’ve learned a lot and we want to be able to take that information and share that with our pork industry counterparts so they can hear and see some of the things that we’ve learned. We need to be fluid and adaptable as the response progresses. A lot happens in that first 24 to 36 hours. There’s a lot of stress that’s absolutely devastating on the industry, the farms and farmers. Everybody is devastated and it’s stressful, but we want to make sure that we’re moving forward with some things that we’ve learned to be a resource to help all of our livestock industries. I think a lot of this information is not just translatable from poultry to pork, but it’s translatable to the cattle as well and the dairy industry.”

In the event of the discovery of a foreign animal disease, biosecurity measures immediately change.

“For a large-scale operation, you’re going to have changes throughout the duration of the response activities. We need a perimeter buffer area, or your lines of separation. These are lines that demarcate where you say everything past this line is contained and it’s contaminated. Everything on the other side of the line is virus free. Those lines in your biosecurity plans are going to change two or three or four, even five, times throughout the course of a response because you’ve got more manpower coming on, you’ve got trucks coming on and off, you’re bringing on various equipment to help you get through your depopulation and disposal activities,” Summers said. “With this, you’ve got new clean/dirty lines that you have to set up, you’ve got new cleaning and disinfection stations you’ve got set up and all those little things that we have talked about in an academic setting for years. Now we have been able to be put in that place. You need to be prepared to be flexible and adaptable with your biosecurity.”

The depopulation process is emotionally, financially and physically challenging for everyone involved, but it is necessary to protect all the other livestock or poultry in the area.

“It’s not something that we like to talk about but it’s a necessary part of our response to be able to protect all of our livestock industries. When you have to depopulate animals, you’re going to have to use multiple modalities. Again, be flexible and reasonable with the ability to have multiple simultaneous methods because speed is of the essence,” he said. “We have to make sure this gets done quickly and in the most efficient and appropriate manner as we can for the safety of protecting the industry. The longer it takes, the more likely the virus is to spread, the more likely that is to jeopardize all of our livestock industries. Then, what do you do with all that organic material? You’ve got carcasses, you’ve got manure, you’ve got eggs you’ve got all this stuff that is essentially contaminated with virus and it’s going to last a little while. You’ve got to be really cognizant of that and to maintain biosecurity while you’re trying to dispose of tons and tons of biological material. Onsite composting is something that we really need to be focusing on. You really have to sit down and take some time to start calculating out the amount of land space and land access it takes to compost that much material and then all the manure on top of it.” 

With depopulation, it is important to have realistic expectations and a plan ahead of time. For example, according to The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, composting 150,000 birds onsite requires a mulch pile measuring 7 feet high, 100 feet long and 100 feet wide on roughly a quarter of an acre — approximately 2,600 cubic yards of mulch or other amendment material. Some facilities contain more than 5 million birds. 

Mulch and space requirements are even higher for hogs and other livestock. Composting 10,000 1,200-pound hog carcasses would require a site over 50 acres and over 18,000 tons of approved mulch, according to USDA. It also is a time-consuming process.  

“It takes time. You have to get everything done in the timely manner but it doesn’t happen as quick as you’d think. You’ve got hurdles that you have to go through in terms of government contracts and contracts with vendors. We want to make sure that you’re trying to get this done in a speedy process but having gone through one on the commercial scale and then backyard flocks as well, we’ve seen we need to spend more time on the front end to develop contract agreements with certain vendors so that we don’t have to do it during an active disease response,” Summers said. “If you don’t have a plan and you’ve not thought this thing through, you’re going to have trouble containing it. You need to be actively engaged in thinking about what to do to prevent the virus from coming on but then, if by chance the farm becomes an infected premises, now you have to think about how to keep the virus on the farm. You have to think about the changing mindset. Your life has just been devastated, your pigs are going to die, but you’ve got to keep this virus here and if you don’t have a plan to contain it, you’re going to jeopardize fellow producers. You jeopardize the industry as a whole if that virus were to move off your farm and it can very easily happen. You need to move with speed and efficiency in an appropriate and professional manner and not having some of those prepared plans may slow down the regulatory response for USDA to help with indemnity or compensation in any way to try to facilitate getting the eradication completed. It will all slow down if there’s nothing prepared on the front end. It’s really hard for a scenario like that where you’re trying to not only develop but also simultaneously implement a response in terms of getting depopulation or disposal.” 

Whether in the poultry industry, the pork industry or any type of livestock, being prepared with a plan and realistic expectations will pay off. 

“Anybody that’s not sitting down right now and taking a serious look at having some robust biosecurity plans, you need to be taking a look at one. We know that African swine fever is in the Dominican Republic. That creates the pressure and a threat to our national economy as far as our pork industry,” Summers said. “We need to make sure that we’re being cognizant enough and I know that the pork industry in Ohio and nationally is a really good, responsive group and they do a great job about being prepared. They’re taking it seriously. We just want to be able to be here as a resource and since we’ve gone through it with HPAI, we know now what are going to be some bottlenecks and maybe we can use that information to help our pork industry partners and livestock producers here in Ohio to be more prepared.”

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