A fowl problem faces Roaring Fork Valley’s small poultry producers
Rock Bottom Ranch among those acting to avoid avian flu outbreak
While news of an avian flu outbreak is for the birds in the minds of many people, the folks at the midvalley Rock Bottom Ranch are taking it seriously because of potentially foul (or maybe fowl) implications.
A backyard flock of chickens in Pitkin County was infected in early April by the first confirmed case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Colorado. The Colorado Department of Agriculture is advising all backyard and commercial flock owners to take precautions to keep their birds safe.
“We were kind of blindsided by all of this,” said Chris Lane, CEO of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which operates Rock Bottom Ranch as a farming and education center. Rock Bottom Ranch is located in Eagle County, but avian flu is highly contagious and presents a threat to all poultry in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Experts say the avian flu doesn’t pose a threat to human health, and it cannot spread through properly cooked eggs or meat. Nevertheless, a flu outbreak could be financially devastating for a small operation like Rock Bottom Ranch.
Rock Bottom has a resident flock of 600 laying hens. In addition, 1,000 meat chickens are cycled in and out of circulation about 200 at a time from late spring to early fall, Lane said.
Eggs from the chickens are sold throughout the year, and the meat chickens are slaughtered and sold at intervals of about 11 weeks. Loss of the poultry would eliminate a major source of revenue.
Lane said the Rock Bottom staff has consulted with veterinarians and agriculture experts to learn what to do to protect its chickens from the flu. The staff concluded the biggest threat is from workers or visitors having goose or duck droppings on their shoes. If the droppings are infected with the virus, it could easily be spread among the poultry if contaminated shoes were worn in their surroundings.
Therefore, egg collection workshops that are held every Friday have been placed on hold. In addition, visitors will be required to keep a distance from the poultry.
“You can still see them from 20 feet away,” Lane said.
Meanwhile, workers at the ranch will change shoes or boots when entering areas occupied by the chickens, or they must sanitize their footwear in a bleach solution, according to Lane.
“This is a top priority for us,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can and be practical at the same time.”
He stressed that the avian flu poses no threat to humans via the eggs or cooked meat from poultry.
“This isn’t a situation where humans need to be afraid of animals,” Lane said.
Agricultural authorities didn’t disclose the exact location of the small farm in Pitkin County that was affected by avian flu. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory confirmed the outbreak. In that flock, 35 of the 36 chickens died from the flu and the lone bird remaining was euthanized. The farm was placed in quarantine.
“The flock had known exposure to sick waterfowl in the preceding days,” said a news release from Pitkin County government.
Rock Bottom Ranch has lots of ponds, wetlands and streams and is adjacent to the Roaring Fork River, so waterfowl is prevalent. However, Lane said, it is extremely rare that wild birds mix with the chickens there.
Once the case in Pitkin County appeared, Eagle County government warned commercial and backyard flock owners on April 9 to take the outbreak seriously.
“HPAI can decimate a small flock in less than 48 hours, so it is critical for all bird owners to take measures that prevent the introduction and spread of the virus,” Colorado State University extension agent Denyse Schrenker said in a statement.
The last major outbreak of the virus in the U.S. was in 2014-15. It cost more than $3 billion to control.
Poultry raisers in the Roaring Fork Valley are advised to boost their biosecurity measures. That includes keeping visitors to a minimum and keeping track of anyone with contact with a flock. Footwear should be disinfected or disposable boot covers worn.
Operators should keep a closed flock and strive to eliminate interactions between domestic and wild birds, and keep feed away from wild birds.
Flocks should be monitored for different patterns in feed and water consumption and egg production as well as illness and death.
Veterinarians and producers must report any suspected problems to the Colorado State Veterinarian’s office at 303-869-9130.
More tips for maintaining healthy birds can be found at the USDA’s Defend the Flock website at http://www.aphis.usda.gov.
Meanwhile, back at Rock Bottom Ranch, Lane said visitors are still welcome with some minor revisions to protocols.
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