Professor Brown, Belushi, Bronzie and B2 strutted toward me across the June-green farmyard, accompanied by their entourage of hens. Back toward the barn, the neat little Production Red laying hens and glossy Black Jersey Giants scratched in the gravel, overseen by Goliath and the other Jersey Giant roosters.
They’re obviously healthy, and even state-certified healthy, but in quarantine nonetheless. Why? Because some unidentified commercial flock in the area, tens of thousands of birds that never once walked outdoors in sunlight or scratched the ground for bugs, was infected by avian flu and destroyed to the last bird.
That’s how it works. If a flock is infected by avian flu, all the birds in that flock are immediately destroyed and “composted” — left to rot on the concrete floors where they lived. And all the other poultry flocks within ten kilometers (about six miles) are inspected and quarantined if they are healthy, killed if they are infected.
As of June 1, when I visited Professor Brown and his crew, 103 Minnesota poultry operations in 23 counties had fallen victim to avian flu. The affected operations include 98 commercial turkey farms, each with tens of thousands of birds, and four egg-producing chicken farms, ranging in size from 202,500 birds in the smallest layer chicken operation in Clay County to more than two million in the largest in Renville County. Only one “backyard” poultry operation, with 150 birds in Pipestone County, has been infected. Only one, although every single “backyard” operation within six miles of any infected commercial operation has been inspected. That’s one small farm operation out of 103, 150 “backyard” birds out of the total of more than eight million.
My brother Kenny Turck, who owns Professor Brown and Belushi and Goliath and the crew, has his theories about why backyard flocks seem largely immune to the killer H5N2 avian flu virus. Like his flock, he said, “They’re outdoors. They’re getting sunlight, actual food from the earth. They’re able to scratch and peck and do the things that come naturally to turkeys.”
In contrast, Kenny believes, commercial farms with barns backed full of birds, are susceptible to disease:
“My belief is that these commercial birds have been hybridized so much that they don’t have immunity….
“Their immunity is lower and they have antibiotics from they day they were hatched until they are shipped, in their water…. When you try to raise a 50# turkey all the time and they’re in such close quarters, they’re going to be more susceptible to transfer bird-to-bird and the genetics of all of this has left them with non-sturdy birds.
“These commercial breeds that you grow to eight weeks and ready to butcher or the turkeys three and a half months and ready to butcher — that’s craziness, that’s not how things grow….
“The really sad part about it is that these are contracted farmers that don’t get paid shit. The profit isn’t in their pocket, the profit is in the industry – that’s who gets the money.”
Kenny’s flock was inspected on May 2, so they are still under quarantine. Normally, he says,
“I give away a lot of eggs to feed hungry people – can’t do that. (Also to family and friends.) They just pile up. We have a small flock so there’s only 20 eggs a day — so when you look at 20 times 60, that’s 1200.”
Kenny is going to hatch some of the eggs that are piling up on the farm. Except for the Production Red hens, his birds are heritage breeds. After the quarantine is lifted, he plans to give some of the chicks to help other people start flocks.
“They’ll raise birds and pay back in birds produced – a group of farms collaborating to grow nice, big chickens. In terms of food security, and being able to feed people, we’ll have that ability. You see all these farms around the countryside that have equipment but no livestock — some would accept a flock but it’s cost-prohibitive to buy the chicks at four bucks a bird. If we can have an understanding, I’ll give them chicks. If I can ripple this, and they can do the same kind of thing, then we can grow farms. We need more farms. We don’t need big farms. We need everybody growing food and having that knowledge. That knowledge is not a weapon. It’s a security.”
And that’s the word from the farm on June 1.
More on avian flu epidemic:
- Talking turkey — and chickens and avian flu (News Day)
- From bib overalls to hazmat suits (News Day)
- Latest updates from MN Board of Animal Health