Twice Struck: One farm’s avian influenza story
By Treena HeinFeatures Migration Matters Producers
The Olson family’s turkey farm was hit by avian influenza twice in the past year. Here’s what the producers learned from the experience.
On April 13, Alberta turkey farmer Scott Olson entered his barn as usual in the morning. Right away, he could tell something was different. “It was a flock of toms and they didn’t get up and come towards me as they usually did,” he says. “They were also quiet. I walked around and saw 20 dead birds. Another 30 died in the afternoon. Two days later, the same thing happened in the other tom barn.”
Olson suspected strongly it was avian influenza (AI) and was worried. “It knocked the wind out of me,” the third-generation farmer and Alberta Turkey Producers (ATP) director says. “There was uncertainty about everything, the whole process, and my first thought was if I would receive compensation. I knew there was government compensation when you get a destruction order from the government and I worried at that point that by the time the government personnel arrived, there wouldn’t be any birds left to destroy.”
Indeed, along with many other poultry farms in Canada this spring, Olson’s farm near Red Deer Lake was hit with the strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that crossed the Atlantic in late 2021. It was the first of a long two-part saga.
Unfolding of events
ATP put Olson in touch with a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) veterinarian on that first day he’d noticed something wrong. They had an virtual discussion and real-time barn tour.
The next morning, Olson took carcass samples to Edmonton to the CFIA AI testing facility and, later in the day, he was told they were positive. He had another interview with the vet to go over symptoms, the history of flock and so on, and did another barn inspection.
He received the order from CFIA to euthanize all birds in the first barn, which had originally been 7,600. On day four, the biocontainment officer came to the farm, and two days later, a CFIA euthanasia team arrived.
“At that point, there were only about 50 birds still alive in the two barns, so there was no need to gas them,” Olson explains. “They used bolt guns.”
A few days later, with the help of a CFIA team, Olson began making compost inside the barns of litter and dead birds. He pushed this into piles and then put it in a line, capping it with wood shavings that he’d had dropped off.
“I wondered if it was going to work – if the heat would get up to where it needed to be. But we checked the temperature and everything went well,” he says. “If I can do it, anyone can, but the CFIA was really helpful. They have composting specialists and had people checking on how I was doing. There were always people to answer my questions on anything.”
Four weeks after he saw the first symptoms, Olson had cleaned out the compost and started washing and disinfecting both barns. He also spent time covering some areas of plywood in the barn walls with tin.
About three weeks later, CFIA did an inspection to check his cleaning and disinfecting efforts. “They were very thorough, just as you’d want them to be,” he says. “They see things that a producer might not. It’s a new set of eyes and they would point something out, and after, I would wonder how I missed this or that. I did some more cleaning and disinfection over about 10 days, and I remember thinking that the last time the barns were that clean is when they were brand new.”
His second inspection went well and Olson then had two weeks’ downtime.
All went smoothly this summer, but in mid-September, the disease struck a second time. “We had 9,000 and 10,200 young birds in the same two barns, although I rotate use of barns at another farm we own,” he says. “I knew right away when I opened the barn door and saw a pile of dead birds. I thought for a second it was a smother from a power outage, but I’d had no alerts, and when I saw another 15 birds dead down the wall, I knew what it was. Gas had to be used this time.”
Although it was hard to believe he was going through another outbreak, Olson didn’t have the nervousness of the first time. He knew all the unknowns and that was a comfort. “I had all the contact numbers; I knew where to take samples; everyone knew me and I knew them and we had built really good relationships,” he says. “I lost a lot of sleep the first time, but this second time I was in a different mindset. I was able to ask a few more questions and made some suggestions, just about small things like how to clean my vents. Everything and everyone was like a well-oiled machine.”
This second outbreak was also a lot easier because during the walk-through, a CFIA person suggested that a whitewashing process (spraying a mixture of lime, salt and water) could be used to kill and seal in any remaining virus on and in any plywood sections that producers happen to have in barn walls. Olson says it would have been great to have that option in the spring, but he did use it in his second barn cleaning and disinfection.
On November 21, he was finished his two weeks’ downtime, but he’s chosen January 3rd as his next flock placement date, just to be sure the virus is gone from his barns. He also chose this date because fall migration is over and the geese that spend the summer at the two nearby lakes are gone.
Yes, in Olson’s case, these geese living nearby and migrating in the spring and fall likely resulted in his outbreaks.
How it entered the barn
There are thousands of geese that pass over Olson’s farm during the two annual migration periods. He believes the virus came into the barns through the air inlets, in fecal dust and feathers.
“My biosecurity is very tight,” he says. “I always use fresh boots and coveralls, and I’m the only one that goes into the barn except for my dad, who occasionally covers for me. I have no employees and no service people enter the barn. I have no insect or rodent issues. I do have curtains on both sides of the barns, but they were not up in the spring or fall. But I may have to switch to using air inlets instead of curtains. I’m not sure if this will make a difference and have to research it.”
What Olson does plan to do is use air cannons in his nearby fields to scare the geese away in the spring from the farm premises, but he says Olson’s insights
Olson remembers that at a Turkey Farmers of Canada meeting in March, his fellow director from B.C. who had had an AI outbreak said, “You don’t want to become an expert in AI, trust me.”
“But, unfortunately, I’m a bit of an expert now,” Olson explains. “It was accurate foreshadowing of what was to come.” He offers three pieces of advice for those who have an AI infection.
His first piece of advice: “I found out after the fact that compensation is dependent on when you take action on high mortality, and I am very happy I contacted my vet that first day. Your destruction order starts from that point so it’s important to report right away.”
Secondly, he advises producers to forge good relationships with their vet, board and fellow farmers. “My first outbreak was on a Saturday and both my vet and board answered right away,” he recalls.
Olson also had farmer friends going through an AI outbreak at the same time, and they would check in with each other to see where they both were with the process.
“If they were a step ahead, they could give me advice or say, don’t forget about doing this or that,” Olson says. “So, having those relationships in place really helps during a crisis. You don’t feel like you are going it alone.”
Lastly, he advises producers to be grateful and thank those who help them. “I developed a great relationship with CFIA staff, and some of them came from B.C. and were far from home,” the turkey producer says.
“I was very grateful and appreciated all their efforts, and I thanked them often and sincerely.”
Outbreaks by the numbers
Facts and figures related to the two avian influenza outbreaks the Olson family’s farm experienced.
- 1958 is when Scott Olson’s grandfather, Archie Olson, started the family’s turkey farm.
- 20,000 is how many turkeys the Olson family has in continual production across two flocks.
- 20,000 is also the number of birds the farm has euthanized due to avian influenza outbreaks.
- Mid-April is when the farm experienced its first outbreak. The second came in mid-September.
- 27 is the number of days the producers spent composting dead birds after their first outbreak.
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