Report on Organic Chicken House in County - Extended Article
Note: A letter to the editor was published in the January 7 edition of the Fairfield Ledger. The following article on the chicken house and Avian Flu contains additional information that we were unable to include due to space considerations.

by Diane Rosenberg Executive Director

A certified organic farmer in Jefferson County is planning an independent 16,000-head organic chicken house to sell eggs to a well-known national organic cooperative.

This type of facility is relatively new to Jefferson County. When concerned neighbors contacted JFAN about potential impacts, we dedicated a fair amount of time for research. We’ve had numerous conversations and meetings with the farmer, the cooperative, various health officials, and others, and we visited an organic chicken farm in Davis County.

JFAN neither endorses nor opposes the chicken house, but rather we are providing the following educational information for the community to consider.

Information About the Chicken House

Although the chicken house would look like a confinement from the outside, it is not a CAFO nor designed like one. The chickens will have full access to ample pasture, and no battery cages are involved. The building and surrounding grounds are designed to encourage the birds to go outside through numerous doors down the length of the building. The cooperative maintains higher animal welfare standards than organic requirements, and the farmer, who has been completely transparent about his plans, says he wants to exceed cooperative requirements as well as plant an orchard around the building.

The farmer will independently own his chickens and sell the eggs to the cooperative. There is no confinement pit with liquid manure; rather chickens produce dry litter. This type of manure doesn’t produce the volume and assortment of toxins as does liquid hog manure. Ammonia is the most common gas that is generated if the litter becomes wet, but the cooperative requires several measures designed to keep the litter dry.

The building itself would be designed to minimize odor and noise. At a recent visit to a similarly designed building with 25% more chickens, neighbors and I detected no manure smell even when standing in front of an operating fan. We also detected no manure smell when in the building with the chickens.

The farmer would feed organic grains from his farming operation then fertilize the fields with the organic manure, creating a closed, sustainable system. As this operation becomes increasingly profitable, the farmer plans to buy more farmland and convert it to organic crops.

Truck traffic to and from the building would be minimal. Trucks from the cooperative would pick up eggs one or two times a week. The farmer would bring grain to the chicken house once a week.

At JFAN’s suggestion, the farmer has been talking and meeting with neighbors in the one-mile radius to address concerns. He is considering two different locations, one of which is further from some neighbors but would require more expense for road construction.

About Avian Flu

To address concerns about Avian Flu, JFAN spoke with the Iowa Department of Agriculture (IDALS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Iowa State University (ISU).

High pathogenic Avian Flu affected commercial poultry flocks in the US in 2015, hitting mainly in the west coast and Midwest. Dr. Yuko Sato, Poultry Extension Veterinarian and Diagnostician and Assistant Professor at Iowa State University, says medical experts believe droppings from wild waterfowl migrating along flyways transmitted the disease to commercial flocks. The virus doesn’t affect waterfowl but is contagious to domestic poultry. Experts believe the virus was tracked into chicken operations by humans, then incubated over a period of time before adapting to commercial flocks.

IDALS reports 77 Iowa poultry facilities with 31.5 million birds were infected in 2015. All but six were CAFOs. Not all birds were sick when euthanized, says Dr. Sato. When a few birds were found ill, entire flocks were destroyed to prevent the virus from multiplying and spreading further. In an emergency situation she says the quickest way to stamp out a disease is through depopulation.

No humans were sickened with the Avian Flu, and the flu didn’t adapt to humans said Dr. Fiona Havers, Medical Officer with the CDC. Neither did it adapt to other animals.

Since pigs can be infected with flu from a variety of different hosts, Dr. Sato said there is some concern that hogs could potentially act as a mixing vessel to mutate the virus and create a new one that could sicken people. A couple of studies were conducted to try to infect pigs with Avian Flu, she says, but they were not successful. Research is taking place in this area, but Dr. Sato says a link has not yet been established.

In Asia, an avian strain called the Asian Flu infected some people, but most of those affected lived with their chickens and had prolonged exposure to the sick birds and their excretions, giving the virus an opportunity to mutate and adapt to humans. It should be noted the Asian Flu is a different strain than Avian Flu, and US farmers don’t live with their flocks. SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a serious form of pneumonia that first broke out in Asia in 2003, is not a form of influenza.

Dr. Sato says the Avian Flu virus is not hearty and over 200 EPA-approved disinfectants can inactivate the flu, including heat. Early detection and diagnosis can prevent another massive outbreak, she adds, and that the industry and federal government is prepared to take a proactive role should one occur again. Chickens are not always susceptible to flu from wildfowl, and she speculates that this year’s large losses may have occurred because depopulating didn’t occur quickly enough and the virus had a longer opportunity to reassort and adapt to domestic poultry.

Since flus mutate and the potential for human transmission is always possible, the CDC works with the USDA to closely monitor livestock outbreaks and has plans in place in should a human transmission take place. Neither Dr. Sato nor Dr. Havers could say human transmission couldn’t occur, however given all factors, Dr. Havers says the CDC considers the threat of human transmission to be low. She also cautioned that should the flu ever jump to humans, it doesn’t signal the beginning of a pandemic.

The Spread and Containment of Avian Flu

Highly pathogenic avian flus, such as the one that occurred last year, are systemic viruses that are very contagious to poultry whereas low pathogenic avian flus are nonfatal respiratory diseases. The flu is always around, and Dr. Sato says in North America, wild waterfowl usually carry a low pathogenic strain every year. Last year’s Avian Flu, though, combined a low pathogenic strain with a high pathogenic strain leading to the catastrophic losses for the industry.

Influenza is categorized into subtypes depending on specific proteins and enzymes on the virus. The Avian Flu has 16 types of proteins and 9 types of enzymes that could combine in any configuration to create a particular strain of flu.

Dr. Sato says there is no way to tell how strains might combine or infect domestic poultry. The USDA has an active surveillance program in place where they are sampling migratory waterfowl including shore birds and gulls to get a good feeling for which viruses may be circulating says Dr. Sato. Since the virus thrives in cold, wet weather and not hot dry conditions, there were fears the Avian Flu would return during the fall migratory period. That hasn’t occurred but the industry is watching for a possible spring outbreak.

Although wild birds originally transmitted the disease to US poultry flocks, virus analyses confirms that individuals and vehicles spread the flu from farm to farm, writes Maryn McKenna, in a July 15, 2015 National Geographic blog. Biosecurity was therefore strengthened in poultry facilities to prevent further spreading of the virus. Shower facilities, disinfected vans, disinfecting troughs and tire sprayers at farm entrances were added in many facilities. Dr. Sato said anyone handling infected birds often wore hazmat suits to minimize its spread. Industrial chicken operations containing 100,000 – 1 million or more chickens employ a larger numbers of staff and require more truck traffic, therefore have a greater risk of spreading the flu from biosecurity lapses she explained.

The organic chicken house in Jefferson County is a smaller family-run operation, and the birds will have contact with fewer humans. The cooperative requires extensive biosecurity measures. The Avian Flu affected none of its 100 organic egg producers last year.

Although 16,000 chickens is not large by industry standards, it is still large enough for neighbors to legitimately question its impact. While it appears to be a humane and environmentally-better alternative to CAFOs, an evaluation of this facility should be made in the light of objective information.