The threat of avian flu keeps Greg Herbruck up at night.
“This disease is devastating because they come in and kill all your chickens,” he said.
Herbruck, a third-generation farmer who leads Michigan’s largest egg farm, has been on high alert about the contagious virus for over a year. One infected bird means the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires the entire flock to be “depopulated,” or killed, to keep the flu from spreading.
“That’s what scares us and why this is so serious,” Herbruck said.
The highly pathogenic avian flu (H5N1) – not detected in the United States since 2016 – started spreading across the globe in January 2022. Since then, more than 58 million birds have died because of outbreaks at poultry farms in 47 states – making it the deadliest bird flu in U.S. history.
And it’s not over yet.
“We know that it’s still circulating. It’s still in the wild birds, and that’s still a threat,” said Nancy Barr, executive director of the Michigan Allied Poultry Industries.
Cases most recently popped up in Michigan last month in an Eaton County backyard flock. Large outbreaks impacting thousands of chickens and turkeys have also been documented this year at commercial farms in Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Kansas.
“Something that’s unique about this outbreak compared to 2015, which was the last big outbreak, is that we never saw it go down. It only increased and we dealt with it through the winter,” said Joe Sullivan, a veterinarian and director of pullet operations at Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac.
Michigan poultry farms are now entering a second year of hypervigilance to keep their flocks safe.
Measures include wearing protective Tyvek suits, cleaning all trucks on site and even a “shower in, shower out” policy at some farms. Barr says the goal is to “do everything in your power” to prevent the virus from getting near the birds.
“It’s costly, it’s probably tiresome, and it certainly takes more time to do everything you need to do entering the barn,” she said. “But it’s also absolutely their focus and their priority.”
Herbruck’s, located 30 miles east of Grand Rapids, has been operating on what they’ve deemed an “orange” biosecurity level since last year. Green is normal, yellow is enhanced and red is an immediate threat. Orange means Herbruck’s has employed some red security measures as a precaution.
“Everything we do is to create the line of separation,” Sullivan said. “And that’s between the outside world and our chicken houses.”
The first line of defense: educating their 1,000 employees.
Wild birds carry the virus that can then infect flocks through saliva, feces or surfaces like the soles of shoes. It’s particularly vicious for chickens, attacking multiple internal organs within days; the mortality rate is 90 to 100%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“We’ve got to win every time. It’s only got to win once,” Herbruck said.
Staff arriving to work at Herbruck’s are greeted by a gate guard before their car tires are washed, shoes are sprayed and personal clothes are swapped out for uniforms and boots that stay on the farm. Any shoes used for hobbies like golfing or hunting aren’t allowed on the farm. Concrete has replaced dirt. Trucks are fogged with disinfectant. And avian flu outbreaks are discussed daily.
“The virus is not hard to kill,” Herbruck said. “If it’s around, it can harbor in soil, dirt, all those sorts of things. That’s why cleanliness is next to godliness.”
For Herbruck’s, 10 million birds scattered across farms in Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania are at risk. The generational family farm, established in 1958, supplies eggs to grocery stores across the Midwest and sold 56 million dozen eggs to McDonald’s in 2021.
“On top of the fact that they produce food population, it’s really hard to see mass mortality of piles of chickens that you worked hard to raise, and you take care of every day,” Sullivan said. “It’s your life and next thing you know it’s warzone.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture employs a “detect, control, and contain” strategy for avian flu that includes “stamping out” infected flocks within 48 hours.
Major outbreaks at poultry farms last year are one of the main reasons egg prices soared in recent months. A dozen Grade A large eggs hit nearly $5 a dozen after three egg farms in Washington, South Dakota and Colorado lost more than one million birds each in December. The sky-high prices also prompted calls for a federal price gouging investigation.
The threat looms over Michigan’s agriculture industry: egg production adds $655 million to the state economy and the turkey industry has a $2.9 billion economic impact, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.To date, only one commercial flock has been infected. A Muskegon County turkey farm lost 35,100 birds in May 2022.
The virus has also spread to mammals like raccoons, skunks, foxes and mountain lions, elevating worries about humans getting sick.
Health officials say avian flu infections remain rare for humans (only person directly exposed to the virus tested positive for H5N1 in the United States last year). It also doesn’t spread through food but contact with birds. Even so, the Biden administration is reportedly considering vaccinating chickens to curb the ongoing spread of the virus.
“It’s sad enough to have one chicken die, but to have the government come and say we’re going to kill them all,” Herburck said, “that’s why the hope of a vaccine is the real hope.”
The virus is seems to be sticking around, Barr said, with cases last popping up in New York and Minnesota during the first week of April. Commercial poultry farms are keeping their high levels of biosecurity. And backyard farmers should also take steps to protect their birds.
“Hopefully it won’t be a repeat of last year where we had a tremendous number of flocks become infected,” Barr said. “Hopefully we won’t see that, but there’s no crystal ball and at this point, we just have to assume the threat is there.”