With 3,566,080 birds euthanized statewide so far, Colorado has had its share of the H5N1 bird flu outbreak. In April, 60,000 birds were euthanized in the Montrose-Delta area, but no sign of bird flu has been detected in Gunnison County thus far.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, H5N1, also called Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, prefers cool, moist environments and intensive confinement. It is also thought to be aggravated by genetic conformity and likely is destroyed by sunlight — making an outbreak in Gunnison County likely until the fall, if one occurs at all.
“Working with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, we canceled our poultry show, so we won’t have any 4-H poultry events during Cattlemen’s Days,” said Eric McPhail, director of the Colorado State University extension office in Gunnison County.
Earlier in the spring the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) put out a ruling that livestock show organizers must deal with an outright prohibition of poultry events.
“I think prohibition goes away at the end of this month, but CDA is also highly advising everyone to continue the precautions,” McPhail said. “We’re just waiting and seeing. They’re still not recommending putting out bird feeders, but everybody does that. I think it’s like anything else to worry about. It could be here tomorrow or it could never even have an impact.”
Gunnison Gardens owner Susan Wyman has taken precautions with her flock on her 4-acre farm in west Gunnison.
“We did early on,” she said. “We were a bit frightened initially about the information that was coming from Colorado State University and the CDA. We kept our flocks inside longer than normal. My biggest fear was that one of my birds would get ill, and then the state would come in and euthanize my flock.”
Bird flu precautions have put a dent in Wyman’s egg sales.
“A good laying hen will give about six eggs a week, and they work hard to do that,” Wyman said. “We have about 570 chicks right now, but we usually get our chicks in late March. When I went down on June 17 to get chicks we only got 188 layers. My younger chicks won’t be producing eggs until late-September. Right now we’re getting about 11 dozen eggs daily. We sell them at the Crested Butte South farmers market and the Gunnison farmers market.”
Wyman also raises chickens for meat.
“The other 382 chicks were meat chicks,” she said. “We get the chicken breeds that do well, ones that put on weight in pastures. We’re not into factory farming.”
Although bird flu was a wrench in the works for Wyman this season, she said things could have been much worse.
“Bird flu precautions have cost us in production, but fortunately none of our birds have taken ill,” Wyman said. “We believe our birds have super immune systems. They are out there eating bugs and worms and grass, and some of the produce we grow, plus they are out in the sunshine.”
Although Wyman, like McPhail, thinks H5N1 is for real, she thinks the US response to it possibly was over-reactive. One of Wyman’s chicken-raising contemporaries takes it a step further, questioning the existence of bird flu, period.
“I didn’t take any precautions, no biosecurity, I didn’t do anything different,” D3+ Farm Fresh Eggs owner Sarah Davis said. “I rolled with it and nothing happened.”
Davis raises her chickens five miles south of Gunnison with about 700 laying hens and approximately 100 ducks and a few geese.
“I think it’s a conspiracy,” Davis said. “I didn’t take any precautions, because I don’t believe it’s real. I understand that some people do believe it’s real but I don’t. I just want to face my life with all my birds around, and, bottom line, I didn’t want to live my life and my birds’ lives and base my stress levels off of a ‘what if.’”
Like Wyman, Davis turns her chickens out to roam daily to eat what chickens eat: bugs, worms and green foliage.
“If I take my free range birds and lock them up in a barn to protect them from something that may or may not be, then they won’t be free range anymore, and they won’t be as healthy,” Davis said. “Where I’m located, I’m secluded, so that reduces any possible risk. We don’t even see many wild birds, if wild birds are the carrier of it.”
Believing it’s real or not, Davis says bird flu precautions have affected her.
“I couldn’t produce my usual 700 eggs a day. I couldn’t roll out my older birds because of the lockdowns. Also, I wasn’t able to buy new young birds, so I’ve had to settle for spent hens coming out of producer barns, birds that aren’t laying at a high rate. When they slow way down laying, I’ll take them to a sale barn.”
At her last sale of spent hens, Davis learned of a novel way old hens are being put to work.
“Hemp growers buy them for pest control,” Davis said. “The last time I went to the sale barn I took about 100 chickens. A hemp grower bought them all, for grasshopper control.”
(Paul Wayne Foreman can be contacted at email@example.com.)