‘It’s pretty devastating’: Turkey farmer hopes worst is over after avian flu loss

Turkeys in a barn
A flock of 10-day-old poults, or young turkeys, that will be moved in about two weeks to restock two central Minnesota turkey farms that were infected with avian influenza.
Courtesy of Matt Herdering

During the last avian flu outbreak seven years ago, the turkey farms Matt Herdering's family owns managed to escape unscathed.

This time around, they weren't so lucky.

About six weeks ago, the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus hit two of the family's farms near Melrose and Little Falls within two days, a disappointing blow for a family business that prides itself on raising healthy birds.

The first thing they noticed was more dead turkeys than usual in the barns, and others that were depressed and lethargic, Herdering said.

"They fall off a cliff,” he said. “They went from looking very nice, beautiful birds, very active to, in a matter of hours, most of those birds wanting to sit on the ground and not move."

Farm staff rushed samples from the birds to a lab for testing. The bad news came later that day.

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Photo of a lab
The serology lab at the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory located in Willmar, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"Even though you know what's happening here, there's a part of you deep down that really hopes that for some reason, you're wrong,” Herdering said. “Then you get that call and see the results, and it's pretty devastating."

Poultry deaths due to avian influenza — either birds that have either gotten sick or been killed to stop the virus’ spread — have now topped 3 million in Minnesota. The state's thriving turkey industry has been hit especially hard. 

Herdering said the two farms are 50 miles apart and have different workers. They've been following strict biosecurity practices to keep bird flu out.

"It was just a terrible coincidence that they hit on back-to-back days,” he said. “It was like catching one punch to the jaw and then all of a sudden, the next one comes the next day."

It was partly through hard work that they managed to avoid the virus during the 2015 outbreak, Herdering said, but also some luck too. 

Scientists point to wild bird migration as the likely main spreaders of highly pathogenic avian influenza this year, and say farmers’ biosecurity precautions have helped prevent farm-to-farm transmission.

Herdering thinks perhaps the virus was carried on dust or debris through an air inlet, or water from recent rains that seeped into the barn. Several other nearby farms in Stearns and Morrison counties also have had positive cases.

"I think the law of averages came in, and this time, we weren't so lucky,” he said. 

Once they got confirmation of the infection, the farms went into lockdown. Herdering said they started gathering materials and mentally preparing themselves for what would come next.

With help from a U.S. Department of Agriculture crew, they spent the whole next day destroying the birds in the infected barns. In total, the farms lost about 110,000 birds.

"It's pretty devastating, when your whole life is taking care of animals and raising those animals, to see all that kind of get wasted,” Herdering said.

The dead birds were piled into long compost piles inside the barn, and mixed with shavings, manure and extra wood as a source of carbon. After two weeks of using long probes to monitor the temperature, they moved the piles outside.

"Basically, we go through the process of killing that virus inside those birds, push everything out, and then we do it again outside of the barn, just to be double sure that that virus has been eliminated,” he said.

The compost will now go to local farmers to use it as fertilizer on their fields. 

Herdering hopes to repopulate the barns later this month with poults, or young turkeys, raised at one of the family’s farms.

The federal government does compensate farmers for birds they destroy due to avian flu. But it doesn't cover the lost production time of several weeks, Herdering said.

Hit especially hard, he said, are farmers within 3 kilometers of an infected barn have to wait weeks or months before getting new birds, even if their flocks didn't contract the virus.

“That guy doesn't get any help,” Herdering said. “That's really the toughest spot to be in."

The past few weeks have been some of the most stressful of their lives, Herdering said — a marathon of long days, of leaving the house before his kids are awake, and getting home after they're asleep.

"At the same time, it's like a sprint,” he said. “Because you need to get all of this done in order to get back to normal, and get those birds back in the barn and get back to doing what we know how to do. Mentally, it's hard. It just wears on you day after day."

After six long weeks, Herdering hopes the end is finally in sight. He's looking forward to his family getting back to raising turkeys, and life returning a little closer to normal.

New cases of avian influenza in Minnesota have slowed in recent weeks, as the weather has warmed and spring migration of wild birds has tapered off.

But Herdering does worry that the virus could return this fall or in future years, and become a recurring problem for the poultry industry. 

“Every year, we've been holding our breath since the end of the outbreak in 2015,” he said. “It took seven years, but it came back again. And I imagine at some point in the future, it's certainly going to be back for a third time here in Minnesota.”

But at the same time, Herdering said, “I love what I do. I take great pride in it, and I don't see that ever changing.”

It seems the 32-year-old father of two is passing on that love of raising turkeys to his children. 

On his son’s last day of preschool, when asked what he wants to do when he grows up, he answered, “Turkey farmer.”