Chicken farmers weigh in as avian flu has big impact on Weld County agriculture – Greeley Tribune


Though Rachelle Morehead’s farm is off the beaten path, at the end of a dirt road with no neighbors within hollering distance, it’s rare to find much quiet.

Between a quartet of turkeys who follow your every step with full-throated gobbles, roosters who crow at far more than the morning light, a flock of whistling Guinea fowl and a handful of playful, bleating goats, the Morehead family finds their peace in embracing the clamor of farm life. After all, if not quiet, at least seclusion buys them a relative sense of safety.

That’s something Morehead is thankful for, especially this year as a deadly avian flu has been confirmed nation- and statewide. Just six years after moving out of Greeley and onto a flat, open property near Briggsdale, Morehead is hoping isolation will spare her flock from the spread of disease.

“It feels like when COVID started,” Morehead said. “How worried should we really be? Time will tell.”

Twelve-year-old Natalie Morehead cradles one of her favorite chickens, Hermione, at her family’s farm near Briggsdale, Colo. Her mother, Rachelle Morehead, said their chickens are more like pets than livestock. (Nikki Wellander/For The Greeley Tribune)

Morehead said so far, she and her family have been approaching the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (also known as HPAI or avian flu) outbreak in Colorado with mild, concerned concern. Thus far, neither her birds, nor those of any of her friends who keep poultry, have been affected.

Counting cases as they hatch

Not all chicken producers in Weld have been as lucky as Morehead. Cases of avian flu have been confirmed in both wild birds and commercial flocks in Weld County. Three large-scale commercial operations in the county have seen their operations stopped in their tracks by positive cases.

The first commercial outbreak in Weld County happened at the end of April at Sparboe Farms, a large-scale table egg producer in Hudson. Sparboe had to euthanize a staggering 1.36 million birds. The subsequent two outbreaks were detected in early June at adjacent egg-laying and pullet operations near Roggen. As a result, an additional 1.9 million laying hens and 200,000 pullets — were euthanized.

So far this year in Colorado, more than 3.5 million birds have been affected by the virus. According to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2020 the state was estimated to have just more than 5 million laying hens, meaning the state’s population of egg-laying hens has decreased by about two-thirds this year due to avian flu.

A silkie chicken named Charmaine (after the toilet paper brand Charmin, a namesake earned by her fluffy head) steps out of her nesting box at the Morehead family's farm near Briggsdale.  (Nikki Wellander/For The Greeley Tribune)
A silkie chicken named Charmaine (after the toilet paper brand Charmin, a namesake earned by her fluffy head) steps out of her nesting box at the Morehead family’s farm near Briggsdale. (Nikki Wellander/For The Greeley Tribune)

Many more poultry producers have been affected than just those who have recorded positive cases, though. Sixteen counties in Colorado have confirmed cases of avian flu, including five counties in which commercial cases have been found.

Following the detection of each commercial case in Colorado, the state’s department of agriculture establishes a quarantine area radius of 10 km (6.2 miles) around the affected facility. Producers in that area are prohibited from moving or selling birds or poultry products during the quarantine unless granted a special permit.

The quarantine area around Sparboe farms has been released, but it remains in effect for the area surrounding Roggen and Keenesburg.

Coping up risk

While this isn’t the first time Colorado has seen an avian flu outbreak, this year is significant due to the way the disease is spreading. Wild birds pose the greatest threat to domestic ones, said State Veterinarian Dr. Maggie Baldwin, with the vast majority of cases in backyard or commercial flocks happening due to exposure to a sick wild bird.

In addition, while historically, avian flu was detected primarily in migratory birds like waterfowl, this year, the disease has also been found in birds of prey, meaning more chances for wild bird contamination. Baldwin said it remains to be seen how much spread of disease will be from migratory birds versus birds that remain in Colorado year-round.

Taking steps to prevent interactions between wild and domestic birds, as well as ensuring humans aren’t tracking wild birds droppings into coops, maintaining proper poultry-handing etiquette and continuously monitoring birds for any signs of disease, are the keys to keeping your poultry safe , Baldwin said.

Rachelle Morehead and her daughter, 12-year-old Natalie, feed their chickens a mealworm snack before securing them in their coop for the night.  (Nikki Wellander/For The Greeley Tribune)
Rachelle Morehead and her daughter, 12-year-old Natalie, feed their chickens a mealworm snack before securing them in their coop for the night. (Nikki Wellander/For The Greeley Tribune)

Many producers, like Greeley backyard chicken farmer Jeremy Soronen and his neighbor (and poultry partner-in-crime) Dan Konzec, began taking these kinds of precautions with the emergence of avian flu this spring. Though they have continued to stay vigilant this summer as cases cropped up in Weld, Soronen said it’s a top priority to balance the safety and the well-being of his birds.

“In a nutshell, the tension I feel as a chicken owner is that it’s important to me that my birds can free range on pasture and enjoy being out and eating grubs. It keeps them happier and healthier so that they can produce the best meat and eggs for my family. However, being out and possibly interacting with wild birds is what puts them at risk for avian influenza,” he said. “It’s a tension that I don’t have an answer to. So, I’ll be as careful as I can while still letting them free range during the days.”

Konzec agreed, explaining that since most of the risk to domestic flocks comes from contamination from wild birds, he and Soronen have had to try new measures to keep their flocks as contained as possible while still ensuring they can free range.

A crack in the nest egg

Another concern for local producers is the potential economic impact of avian flu, which continues to fluctuate as the outbreak in Colorado continues. While some springtime egg shortages and rising prices have been accredited to the disease, many producers are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to totaling the costs of the ongoing situation.

“I think the price of meat and eggs right now is high primarily due to inflation, but it could go higher if the avian influenza continues to get worse and availability becomes an issue,” Soronen said. “That’s one of the primary reasons it’s important to me to fill my freezer with meat birds and keep a bunch of laying hens around.”

Baldwin said the impacts to the general public from avian influenza should stay mostly economic. Though Colorado has seen one confirmed case of the avian influenza virus infecting a human, this individual was working on a farm with confirmed cases of infected poultry. Risk of transmission to humans is very low.

Baldwin also said that consumers don’t need to worry about food-borne illness due to avian influenza at this time, as safety precautions such as the quarantines around affected areas, coupled with normal food safety procedures, should largely eliminate the risk of transmission.

Though the majority of Weld County chicken owners have not had to come face-to-beak with avian flu, preventing the spread of disease to both humans and birds is always a top priority, Morehead explained. That’s because the poultry roosting the coops and roaming the pastures at her home are not just livestock.

A flock of guinea fowl free-range on the Morehead's farm near Briggsdale.  (Nikki Wellander/For The Greeley Tribune)
A flock of guinea fowl free-range on the Morehead’s farm near Briggsdale. (Nikki Wellander/For The Greeley Tribune)

From a geriatric silkie hen named Hermione to a scarred rooster that survived a skunk attack named Nearly Headless Nick (many of the Morehead family’s birds are named after Harry Potter characters), each of the chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl that make a racket on the farm are loved like family.

“They’re like pets to us,” Morehead said. “It would be devastating if any of them got sick.”

Avian influenza scope: 2022 versus 2014-15

So far in 2022, 37 states across the US have seen positive cases of avian flu, with more than 40 million birds affected across nearly 400 flocks (both backyard and commercial), according to the USDA.

The last large-scale outbreak of avian influenza in the US began in December 2014 and continued through June 2015. There were 211 commercial operations and 21 backyard flocks affected. In total, 7.4 million turkeys and 43 million chickens died in this outbreak.

Learn more

To learn more about avian influenza, including the outbreaks in Weld County, please visit the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s website at https://ag.colorado.gov/animals/reportable-diseases/avian-influenza.

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