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Avian influenza basics for organic and pastured poultry flocks

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Quick facts

Avian influenza is harmful to poultry flocks especially if it’s highly pathogenic. Always report any signs of disease to your state agency or veterinarian. Preventing disease is the best way to keep your flock healthy.

  • Separate your flock from disease sources including ponds or wetlands with wildlife and wild birds.

  • Store and cover feed to keep wildlife out.

  • Have a NOP-approved temporary shelter available in the event of disease outbreak or bad weather.

  • Wear clean clothing and footwear when caring for your flock.

  • Limit flock access to visitors.

What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza (AI) is a disease that affects domestic poultry including:

  • Chickens

  • Turkeys

  • Pheasants

  • Quail

  • Ducks

  • Geese

Waterfowl and shorebirds are natural hosts for the avian influenza virus. These birds will shed the virus, often without showing signs of illness.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is rapidly fatal for poultry. Sudden onset of HPAI and high death rates are common among all poultry (except ducks and geese).

In chickens, HPAI signs often include respiratory (gasping) and digestive (extreme diarrhea) signs followed by rapid death. Chickens may have swelling around the head, neck and eyes. The heads and legs may also have purple discoloration.

Other poultry species, including turkeys, may have nervous system symptoms such as:

  • Tremors

  • Twisted necks

  • Paralyzed wings

  • Laying down and pedaling

Since December 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reported confirmed cases of HPAI. These cases were mostly of the H5N2 subtype. HPAI occurred in wild waterfowl and backyard poultry in the states of Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho. It also occurred in commercial poultry flocks in California, Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas (view updates).

Public risk is very low with no food safety concerns because infected birds don’t reach the market. Infection risk normally only exists for people in direct contact with affected birds. As a reminder, always properly handle poultry and eggs and cook to an internal temperature of 165 F. Don’t eat birds that appear sick or have died for reasons unknown.

Wondering about HPAI in your flock?

Each state has an agency to respond to avian influenza cases. Minnesota’s agency is the Board of Animal Health. If your flock has sudden, high death rates or many birds with signs of HPAI, contact your veterinarian or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health right away.

The Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory works with the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to conduct and coordinate testing for AI.

You can contact the laboratories at:

  • Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory: 320-231-5170

  • University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory: 612-625-8787

Preventing disease

Biosecurity plans are steps poultry producers must take to prevent disease in their flocks.

Poultry get HPAI from infected waterfowl (ducks and geese) and gulls, which may frequent wetlands on farms. Thus, poultry raised outdoors or with outdoor access are at greater risk of HPAI.

Infected poultry can spread disease to new flocks through contact with birds, people, manure and equipment. HPAI viruses can exist in bird waste for several months especially under high moisture and low temperature conditions.

Pasture-raised poultry, including birds raised as certified organic, have become a popular alternative enterprise on many farms throughout the U.S. Biosecurity in pasture-raised poultry can be harder than flocks raised in confinement. Biosecurity is a set of steps flock owners must take to prevent or reduce disease. This includes separating pasture raised birds from other poultry, wild birds, wildlife and rodents.  

Develop your own biosecurity plan and make sure to routinely practice it even when it’s inconvenient.

Biosecurity tips

  • Keep your pasture flock isolated. Don't place the flock near a pond, creek or lagoon where waterfowl might gather.

  • Don't use pond or stream water to provide drinking water for the birds, unless you filter, treat or disinfect it.

    • Organic producers often use apple cider vinegar in water supplies to help prevent disease. Don’t rely only on this practice to protect against HPAI viruses in water.

  • Keep feed bins covered and store feed in a place that wildlife and birds don’t have access to.

  • Don’t feed or have feed available to wild birds. Always prevent wild birds from mingling with domestic birds.

  • Have a shelter to confine birds in the event of a disease outbreak. Enclosed shelters prevent entry of wild birds and their droppings.

    • National Organic Program (NOP) standards allow you to temporary confine flocks because of severe weather or other health concerns.

    • Work with a certifying agency if you need to confine birds. A certified agent must approve the temporary housing.

  • Wear clean clothing to check on your pastured flock. Don't track matter from the pasture back to other areas of the farm or other poultry operations.

  • Limit access for visitors.

    • Don’t permit people with poultry to visit your flocks.

    • Provide clean clothing and footwear, washable or disposable, to visitors.

  • Isolate your operation and call your veterinarian if you think your birds are sick.

Wayne Martin, Extension educator; Robert Porter Jr., Extension poultry specialist; Sally Noll, Extension poultry scientist and Carol Cardona Extension specialist and poultry virologist

Reviewed in 2018

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