Threat of deadly virus keeps poultry farmers on edge

Signs warn unauthorized visitors not to enter a farm.
Signs warn unauthorized visitors not to enter Thirteen Acres, a turkey farm near Swanville owned by Lynette and John Gessell. Poultry producers including the Gessells adopted strict biosecurity measures after a 2015 outbreak of avian influenza devastated Minnesota flocks.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, case numbers are finally on the decline, and many restrictions are being lifted. But Minnesota's poultry producers are on high alert for a different deadly virus: highly pathogenic avian influenza. 

Back in 2015, 9 million birds in Minnesota were killed by the virus, or euthanized to slow its spread. It’s believed to be spread by migrating waterfowl in the spring. This year, it's already been detected in poultry flocks in South Dakota and Iowa.

Minnesota turkey and chicken growers say they’re employing lessons learned from 2015 to try to prevent another outbreak.

"It really taught us that the flocks that are located just outside our back door are vulnerable to a very highly efficient, lethal killer virus,” said Lynette Gessell, a Morrison County turkey farmer. “It really taught us that we needed to think about what we could do to protect our flocks."

Gessell, her husband John, their daughter and son-in-law own Thirteen Acres and Badger Creek farms west of Little Falls, where they raise light turkey hens for about 13 weeks before selling them to Jennie-O for processing.

The Gessell family has been raising turkeys for four generations. Even so, the swift and deadly outbreak of avian influenza seven years ago was a storm they hadn’t weathered before.

A woman changes clothes and dons plastic coverings
Lynette Gessell changes clothes and dons plastic coverings over her boots, then steps into a foot bath containing a disinfectant. The measures are aimed at preventing contamination before she enters a service room connected to one of the turkey barns.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The Gessells’ flocks were spared. But in nearby Stearns, Meeker and Kandiyohi counties, producers weren't so lucky.

"I just remember hearing that phone call and just kind of holding my breath a little bit,” Gessell said. “Here we are again. It's out there.”

Commercial poultry producers are now required to have biosecurity plans aimed at preventing the introduction of avian influenza into their flocks. 

Those plans include measures such as maintaining a perimeter buffer to keep out unnecessary traffic, controlling rodents, cleaning up spilled feed that might attract wildlife and storing farm equipment inside sheds.

During high-risk times of the year — including spring, when migratory waterfowl are passing through — only essential workers are allowed in the barns. 

"We try to keep anything away from the barns as much as possible,” Gessell said. “We don't want anything that might have virus attached to it close to the barns."

Even entering a service room connected to an empty turkey barn requires multiple steps, including donning coveralls and plastic boot coverings, and dunking each foot into a disinfectant bath.

Outside the single entrance to the barn is a "line of separation" — a physical barrier marked with red tape and yellow rope. It's a visual reminder to make sure no one is bringing any contamination into the barn, Gessell said.

"Do I have all the clothing removed that I don't need to have on when I enter the barn?” she said. “Do I have the proper footwear on? Have I put on my personal protective gear?"

A woman inside a turkey farm.
Lynette Gessell explains the line of separation, a physical and visual barrier aimed at keeping contamination out of the turkey barn. Only essential visitors, such as a veterinarian, are allowed inside, after following biosecurity protocols.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

All of these precautions can get cumbersome. But Gessell said farmers take them very seriously, because they know their flocks — and their livelihood — are at stake.

"It's stressful and it's difficult, but it's so important,” she said. “We love what we do. We wouldn't do it otherwise."

If avian influenza does show up in central Minnesota, preventing its spread will be a challenge. Migratory ducks and geese frequently travel through this region along the Mississippi River flyway.

Bird Flu
A flock of young turkeys stand in a barn at the Moline family turkey farm after the Mason, Iowa farm was restocked on Aug. 10, 2015.
Charlie Neibergall | AP 2015

Turkey barns dot the landscape, increasing the risk that the virus could spread from farm to farm.

Gessell said she's confident that Minnesota is much more prepared than it was in 2015 to prevent a widespread outbreak. State labs have more testing capacity, and after seven years, the biosecurity measures have become a routine habit for most producers, she said.

But the past two years have also made clear how difficult it is to contain a contagious virus, Gessell said.

"I think about COVID and all of the interventions and steps that we were doing nationwide, and that bug still made its way around,” she said. “I guess it's the nature of Mother Nature, I don't know. But my hope for farmers is that they can recognize that they're doing what they can."

According to the state Agriculture Department, Minnesota has about 550 commercial turkey operations and more than 3,000 poultry farms. In the 2015 outbreak, 110 farms were affected. 

A turkey farm near a Jennie-O plant
This April 20, 2015 photo shows a sign warning visitors to stay away outside a turkey farm near a Jennie-O Foods turkey processing plant in Melrose, Minn.
Kirsti Marohn | The St. Cloud Times via AP

Erica Sawatzke is a sixth-generation turkey farmer in Kensington, west of Alexandria. Previously a breeder of turkeys, she now raises light hens for Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls.

As a breeder, Sawatzke said her farm already had a higher level of security prior to the last avian influenza outbreak. 

But many farmers who raise turkeys for meat also have tightened their practices since 2015, she said, including changing clothes and shoes before entering barns.

“It's like being in the kitchen and washing your hands before you cook, washing your hands before you touch raw meat, and then after you have cut your meat and you've got it in your frying pan,” Sawatzke said. “It's kind of the same concept. You're just trying to eliminate the spread of that virus particle that you would have on your shoes or clothes.”

Sawatzke, who serves as the poultry representative on the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, said the 2015 outbreak also made clear the importance of sharing information. 

Most growers are in regular communication with their veterinarians, she said, and the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association distributes information to its members.

Ashley Klaphake and her husband, Jon, are third-generation turkey farmers near Melrose. Their farm escaped the 2015 outbreak that struck several neighboring farms. 

“2015 was traumatic,” she said. “Not specifically on my farm, but a lot of friends, turkey growers, were sending pictures and videos of putting their animals down. It was horrific.”

Since then, most turkey growers have been on high alert, Klaphake said. She said she’s fairly confident that with the added biosecurity and testing measures, an outbreak of avian influenza in Minnesota could be contained.

“We are 10 times more prepared than we were in 2015,” she said.