Bird flu halts poultry showing at Iowa fairs

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Poultry like this young broiler chicken, held by 4-Her Tom Shirbroun, cannot be shown at Iowa fairs this year, per an order from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, in an effort to minimize the spread of avian influenza. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Due to avian influenza, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) recently announced an order to cancel all live bird exhibitions at county fairs, the state fair and other bird gatherings. The order, which will run through the end of 2015, also prohibits live birds from being sold at auction markets, swap meets and other sales.

Although the Center for Disease Control and the Iowa Department of Public Health consider the risk to the public to be low, the order will work to minimize the risk and spread of the virus. According to IDALS, since April, over 25 million birds and more than 60 farms in 18 Iowa counties have been impacted by avian influenza. 

“Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 4-H’s priority is youth and their learning experiences,” said Mike Anderson, Extension 4-H State Livestock Specialist and State Fair 4-H Livestock Superintendent in a press release. “Some 4-Hers will be disappointed that they won’t be able to exhibit their poultry projects at fairs this summer, but we’re exploring alternate learning opportunities to offer them at fairs and will share more details as plans develop.”

“I’m disappointed for the youth,” added Clayton County Youth and 4-H Program Coordinator Tammy Muller, “but we need to work with the state to stop the spread.”

Muller said around 50 youth, through 80 exhibits, participated in poultry showing at the Clayton County Fair last year.

Tom Shirbroun, who lives with his family in rural Farmersburg, was one of them, as was his brother, Andre. The two show chickens. Other types of poultry shown at the fair include turkeys, quail, pheasants, ducks, geese and pigeons, he noted.

“There’s quite a menagerie,” added Tom’s mom, Suzanne.

“I’m pretty disappointed,” Tom said of not being able to show at the fair this year, “but we have a neighbor down the road who has thousands of turkeys. I’d feel bad if I knew I hadn’t done my best to stop the spread.”

Now 17, Tom has been involved with chickens since he began 4-H. He was already getting prepared for the fair when the IDALS directive came down. Right now, he has 40 will-be laying chickens and 25 broilers.

 Each year, he said, he raises three batches of broiler chickens, which are raised specifically for meat production. The first batch of 25 is a “practice run” before the fair. 

The second is for the special broiler project at the fair. For that, all participating youth pick up 25 chicks from the county ISU Extension office, then raise them up prior to the fair. 

“At the fair, they’re weighed in and judged on quality, uniformity and how they stand,” Tom explained.

While some exhibitors sell those chickens at the fair, Tom said he and Andre take theirs back home “to finish out,” per their customers’ request.

He also raises another batch later in the year, for his fall customers.

“They have a rotating herd,” Suzanne said.

In addition to the broilers, Tom said he exhibits one batch of at least 30 laying chickens at the fair. The sale of eggs from older layers helps supplement his college fund.

While the bird flu won’t allow him to participate in fairs, Tom said he can still sell meat and eggs to customers.

“Eggs and meat are safe as long as they’re cooked properly,” he said, noting that that goes for any time.

“Tom and Andre are fortunate to have their set of customers,” Suzanne said. “My heart goes out to the farms where that’s the main income. The boys just have a little operation.”

Tom admitted he was worried when he first heard about the avian flu.

“It’s very contagious,” he said. “The only thing you can do is take major precautions to stop it from spreading.”

Since the virus reached Iowa, Tom said he and others use plastic disposable booties when around poultry in order to prevent cross-contamination.

According to IDALS, this strain of the avian flu originated in shorebirds and waterfowl. These wild birds can carry up to 144 possible subtypes of avian influenza viruses, but rarely show disease or mortality themselves. A large percentage of waterfowl pass through Iowa, as it’s part of the Mississippi flyway migration route.

An avid fisherman, Tom said he makes sure to wear a specific set of clothes and boots fishing, and only fishing, “so I don’t drag the disease back to my coop.”

Although a disappointment for fairgoers, Muller said she hopes youth will use the situation as “a learning experience.”

“Through our annual food safety and quality assurance curriculum, we have educated youth for many years on topics such as biosecurity and the potential for diseases to spread,” added Anderson in a press release. “The education and learning practices are being put into action in the real world.”

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