Fighting back against Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza

Market to Market | Clip
Dec 1, 2023 | 6 min

Producers work to handle recent HPAI outbreaks.


Nathan Hill has been an Iowa turkey producer since he was a young man. 

Nathan Hill, Circle Hill Farms, Ellsworth, Iowa: “You know, this is a family business. My grandfather started in 1947. I'm a third generation. I have two kids back from college that are in this. And so, yeah, we're definitely in it for the long haul.”

Every year, Hill and his family, who produce turkeys under the name Circle Hill Farms, send nearly 800,000 birds to U.S. processing plants.

But nearly eight years ago, Circle Hill Farms was a victim of the 2015-2016 outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI, more commonly known as Bird Flu. 

Hill’s farm was among the more than 210 commercial operations across the country devastated by the virus. Producers lost more than 50 million birds nationwide. 

The virus rampaged through turkey operations and chicken egg laying houses in Iowa, the country’s number one producer of chicken eggs. The annual production of 15 billion eggs was severely curtailed sending the price through the roof. In the end, more than 77 cases were found among Iowa operations impacting nearly 33 million birds. Clean-up and compensation for growers across the country cost the USDA over $910 million.

Barns were cleaned, new stock brought in and the focus went to stopping the spread of the virus. Biosecurity protocols were strengthened. Neighbors increased their vigilance, watching out for each other to prevent a new outbreak.  

Because of the 2015 experience, Hill implemented several biosecurity protocols and made sure his barns were tight against rodents or birds. HPAI remained under control for nearly six years until February of last year. Despite his hard work, Hill couldn’t escape the surge. 

Nathan Hill, Circle Hill Farms, Ellsworth, Iowa: “I've been unfortunate to have it both in 2015 pattern in facility and then in 2022, and in 2022, I had a neighbor that got it and I had a facility that was in close proximity and a few days later I broke.

He moved quickly to put the infected birds down and start clean up. Even going at the fastest pace allowed by federal rules, it was still nearly a month before he could restart activities in the barn. For some producers the quarantine and clean up periods can last up to three months.

Nathan Hill, Circle Hill Farms, Ellsworth, Iowa: So the biggest thing is, number one, the quicker you can get them put down, the safer it is for everybody.

Hill says the effect of the virus reaches beyond the barn.

Nathan Hill, Circle Hill Farms, Ellsworth, Iowa: “Obviously, financially it hurts you. But I think more than that, it's probably the emotional strain that it puts on everybody, not only me as the grower and the owner. It's my employees. It's their families. The things they have to deal with. …you know, as a farmer and a producer of livestock, you've been taught your whole life to, you know, take care of those, that animal. And so the hard thing is you sit, you spend your whole life caring for them and always trying to figure out ways how you can improve that. And then when you have to go through that emotion and put that animal down, that's that's a tough thing for a lot of people.“

During the latest outbreak, nearly 63 million birds have been affected in more than 360 flocks nationwide. So far, USDA has committed over $750 million for clean-up and compensation. Iowa accounts for nearly 50 of those affected flocks with losses of almost 18 million birds but for Hawkeye State producers those numbers are about half of the 2015 outbreak. 

Mike Naig is the Secretary of Agriculture for the State of Iowa.

Sec. Mike Naig, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship:

You know, in the 2015 outbreak, there was significant movement of the virus. Once it was in a commercial operation, and then we could connect dots between it spread between there were people, equipment maybe that was moving and it spread laterally from farm to farm. We largely have not seen that in the 22-23 outbreak.”

Producers can point directly to tighter biosecurity protocols like boot covers, changing outer clothes when going from barn to barn or restricting the movement of vehicles from one place to another. 

Scientists were able to trace the source of the infection to migratory birds.

Nathan Hill, Circle Hill Farms, Ellsworth, Iowa: 

So now it's something that we're kind of living with every day. 

Officials with USDA say the chance of HPAI  infected poultry entering the food chain is extremely low and that you cannot get Bird Flu from birds or eggs that have been properly prepared and cooked. 

There has been some research into vaccines. Hill is still pushing the basics when it comes to prevention.

Nathan Hill, Circle Hill Farms, Ellsworth, Iowa: … it's about limiting exposure. And so the more you can limit an outbreak and limit your exposure of it, then the higher chances are you you know, it's something obviously your going to have to live with.

Sec. Mike Naig, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship: “This is a constant threat, as is African swine fever, as is foot and mouth disease. That is how we have to think of high path avian influenza. That's the mindset that our producers have to have. That's the level of readiness that we have to maintain here and at USDA is that it could happen literally now at any time. 

For now, Hill and his employees will remain on guard against the virus. 

Nathan Hill, Circle Hill Farms, Ellsworth, Iowa: “There's nobody to blame in these type of situations… And so, you know, this time of year, both in the spring and now in the fall, when these birds are migrating back and forth, that's when you really start have to have to be on high alert.

For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.