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Poultry producers remain diligent for avian flu after a quiet 2023

A year ago, Alberta poultry producers were not sure what 2023 would bring.

Avian flu first appeared in commercial bird populations in Alberta the previous year, and by the end of January 2023, about 60 farms in the province had been affected.

In 2022, 1.4 million birds were culled at dozens of Alberta farms as a precaution after the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) Virus was detected. By the fall, nearly 60 outbreaks were identified on poultry farms.

At that point, it was unclear whether the flu strain making the rounds, which is easily transmitted from wild populations, would sweep through the province’s poultry operations, with the annual bird migration soon to begin.

Due to the industry’s biosecurity diligence and a measure of luck, the worst-case scenario did not happen in 2023.

“In the spring, we didn’t have any (cases), which was really excellent,” said Alberta Chicken Producers chair and Lacombe-area producer David Hyink.

The mild fall led to a handful of cases, mostly in the Taber and Lethbridge areas, but no widespread infections. Producers in B.C.’s Lower Mainland were not so lucky. Avian flu swept through more than 50 farms there last fall.

“Fortunately, it was a fairly quiet fall compared to last year,” said Hyink. “We’d love to see no cases. Farmers are diligent, but for those producers who are affected, it’s something that sure causes a lot of stress and a lot of extra work. But we made good progress.”

Hyink said Alberta producers are not letting down their guard.

“We do remind our farmers all the time that (avian influenza) can live on in snow and cold. It is a matter of still maintaining good biosecurity. Even when it’s -40 C, like it has been this past week, that virus can be alive still. It’s sunlight and heat that kills the virus.

“I think going into 2024 we have to remain just as diligent and work just as hard to protect our birds and to do everything we can to keep anything out of our barns that might infect them.”

This year, the first avian flu cases were detected in early January by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) on a farm in Quebec and cases are being investigated in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan.

A number of steps were taken last year in Alberta to grapple with avian flu’s challenges. A $140,000 Canadian Agriculture Partnership grant was secured to buy equipment to efficiently dispose of birds if culling is required.

Last September, a new research project was announced to fill in the blanks on how avian flu is transmitted and off strategies to protect the industry in the future.

An arm’s-length government agency, Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), Alberta Chicken Producers, Alberta Turkey Producers and Egg Farmers of Alberta are backing the $733,800 research project on the virus, led by Dr. Faizal Careem, of University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

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