CALHOUN COUNTY, Iowa — Rural Iowa is known for welcoming visitors, but a sign on display as you pull into the Moline farm sends a different message.
“We don’t allow any visitors on the farm without talking to us first,” farmer Brad Moline said.
Moline’s family has spent generations raising turkeys in Calhoun County. He’s also the president of the Iowa Turkey Federation.
“When I grew up, I tell the high school kids we put up range fence all summer long, we had alfalfa fields with outdoor turkeys,” Moline said.
But now, you won’t find a single turkey outside and the Moline’s are trying to prevent a similar scene at a commercial turkey farm in neighboring Pocahontas County where an outbreak of avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, was confirmed on Oct. 23. The gravel road leading past the site is closed.
“I know folks who, when this comes through, they lose sleep about it,” Moline said.
An estimated 50,000 turkeys on-site were destroyed to help contain the disease, one of several locations within the state to report cases of bird flu that month.
“This is the same, classified as the same outbreak that started in spring of 2022,” Moline said.
The current strain of H5N1 is responsible for infecting over 60 million birds across 47 states in the U.S. since Feb. 2022. Once a bird is infected, the virus spreads aggressively.
“Twelve to 14 hours later the next morning and they’re not moving, there’s massive amounts of dead ones and it happens rapidly like that,” Moline said.
The only current solution is destroying entire flocks to help isolate an outbreak. Once the virus is detected, the entire flock and any other birds on the farm are euthanized within 24 hours.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. There’s not a magic button, or pill, or medicine you give the animals to heal them or cure it for them, and that’s the other part that’s really frustrating,” Moline said.
Moline and the majority of poultry farmers in Iowa learned that lesson firsthand when the initial outbreak of bird flu hit the state eight years ago.
“2015 was a mess and that’s being nice and understating the story. We lost two-thirds of our income we got from turkeys that year because we had to put down 56,000 turkeys. We raised a lot more turkeys than that, but there was so much down time where the barns sat empty,” Moline said.
Twenty-one states, including Iowa, reported cases of bird flu from 2014-15 and over 50 million birds died or were destroyed.
“2015 was the first time we saw high-path avian influenza,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said. “It was the largest foreign animal disease in U.S. history.”
Sec. Naig credits state-wide biosecurity measures like those in place at the Moline farm for slowing the spread of the current cases in Iowa.
“The first time around (2015) we saw a lot of movement of virus from farm to farm, we didn’t see that this last time; we aren’t seeing that now. That tells me farmers have stepped up, they’ve done a good job. It’s not an easy job to do biosecurity every day but I’m proud of that work,” Naig said.
Current data shows biosecurity measures are more important now than what farmers practiced in 2015.
“The virus is a lot different. In 2015 it got to June and it disappeared with the warm weather and didn’t come back again. This one has adapted to not only warm weather, hot temperatures, it’s popped up all over the country, so it’s adapting to different environments all over. The ducks and geese are still major carriers of it, but this disease has adapted and it is in mammals and we suspect rodents and even flies and beetles carrying it into the barn,” Moline said.
Inside Oragen Tech labs in Ames, Dr. Dave Carter and Mark Welter are finding new ways to fight infectious animal disease. Their specialty is cattle vaccines and for good reason.
“Why isn’t there this magic vaccine for avian influenza,?” WHO 13’s Elias Johnson asked.
“Well, you have to look at the lifespan of the animal. A pig or a cow have a longer lifespan; they may go through a couple of calving’s or farrowing’s, whereas a chicken will lay eggs for a year and then they’re done. They’ve learned a lot from the first outbreak in that this method of eliminating and eradicating works and so I think they’re going to stick with it because they’re confident in it and it’s the most cost effective,” Welter said.
Then, there’s the question of if, and when, the current strain of H5N1 infecting birds and mammals could infect humans.
“I think historically they do have some strains that came from birds that did infect humans and the most virulent strains have the potential to cross over to humans. I know the CDC has a stockpile of viruses that are vaccine potentials they could use if that ever were to happen,” Welter said.
With strict biosecurity measures and third party security audits in place, the Moline’s continue keeping a close eye on their flocks, with confidence knowing every bird they raise will be safely ready to go from their farm to someone’s table.
“All the flocks are tested for diseases before they go to the processing plant. So, they’re blood tested, we do tests for salmonella and we also do a fat sample test where they’re looking for any drug residue as well, so they’re a lot of layers for protection to make sure every bird that leaves here and ends up on a deli meat sandwich is going to be safe no matter where in the world it goes,” Moline said.