What Dairy Can Learn from High Path AI

You don’t have to be involved in the poultry industry to see the havoc that High Path AI is causing within the Mid-Atlantic region and across the US right now. I first heard about High Path AI back in 2014 during the last outbreak, which led to 4 million birds in the Midwest region of the country being euthanized.  When I first heard the acronym, I wondered if it was some new risky method of artificial insemination since I had grown up in dairy and only ever heard AI used in that context. I quickly realized how wrong I was.

Avian influenza is a virus that affects chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl as well as a wide variety of free-flying species. It often moves with the migratory patterns of wild birds and can be transmitted to domestic birds through feces and air patterns. Something as simple as a flock of wild geese flying over a chicken house and having their feces land in the ventilation system of that house can lead to an outbreak on that farm. From there, it can quickly spread to other farms through the air or through human transmission, which could happen through poor biosecurity practices, such as carrying the disease on dirty boots or clothing.

Two different versions of Avian Influenza exist: High Path AI and Low Path AI. High Path AI is much more deadly than Low Path AI. It spreads rapidly through a flock and causes a higher mortality rate. It has been detected and eradicated three times in the US domestic poultry industry. High Path AI was again detected in the US in February and found in Pennsylvania in March. Since then, it has been confirmed in more than 350 flocks across the US, affecting more than 37 million birds. It will cost the poultry industry millions of dollars in lost revenue with the ripple effects potentially stretching across multiple years.

Over the past decade, more and more dairy farms have added poultry facilities as a second enterprise for their operation. Those farms know all too well the devastating effects High Path AI could have on their business. Most of us in dairy, though, are fortunate to not be affected by the High Path AI outbreak. Still, our operations are not immune to diseases and the devastation they can cause. Having a biosecurity plan in place can help you protect your operation  if and when it happens to dairy.

Something comparable that could devastate dairy herds is Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). It is also caused by a virus and causes fever and blisters on the tongue and lips, in and around the mouth, on the mammary glands, and around the hooves of divided-hoof animals. Unlike High Path AI, FMD does not usually cause the adult animals to die, but it does leave them weakened and unable to produce meat and milk the way they did before becoming sick. Fortunately, FMD hasn’t been found in the US since 1929, and both the government and industry have worked hard to keep it from crossing our borders. However, it does exist in other countries, and many experts say it’s only a matter of time before FMD lands in the US again.

Biosecurity a Necessity

Recently, I attended a meeting where Dr. Kevin Brightbill, state veterinarian and director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services, spoke about the High Path AI outbreak. Dr. Brightbill and his team have been working around the clock to limit exposure and minimize losses associated with this most recent outbreak of High Path AI. He shared some of his observations around how the disease has spread and how important biosecurity measures are to controlling the disease. After the 2014 outbreak of High Path AI, the USDA began requiring commercial poultry farms of a certain size to have written biosecurity plans in place. These plans outline protocols around visitors and vehicles entering the farm, as well as the internal health protocols and other controls in place to prevent against, quickly diagnose, and eradicate any potential threats.

Unfortunately, biosecurity is not often top of mind for dairy farmers. Most herds have vaccination protocols in place to prevent against BVD and other viral diseases that can be transmitted between animals. But we often don’t think about the traffic coming in and out of the facility. The feed truck drives in the same driveway the milk truck drives out, and the manure tanker often takes that same driveway to the field.

Hopefully most consultants visiting farms have protocols in place to sanitize their boots, keep their vehicles clean, and wear protective gear. But individual farms typically don’t have written rules around sanitization and other requirements for those visiting the farm. Boots, clothing, and tires can all carry diseases from one farm to another, and most farms do not have a good handle on who is driving in and out of their driveways or what they are carrying in or out with them.

Having a written biosecurity plan would address many of these issues. On those farms with both dairy and poultry operations, biosecurity is even more important. The poultry operation should be totally separate from the dairy operation, with separate driveways and even separate employees. Having an employee working between the dairy and poultry facilities can carry diseases from one species to another.

Devastating Consequences

In the next version of the National FARM Program, those participating in the program are going to be encouraged to develop written biosecurity plans. While it may seem like just more busy work, there are good reasons why your farm should have a biosecurity plan in place. This type of plan outlines the farm’s standard operating procedures for maintaining the herd’s health through vaccinations, routine husbandry and health procedures, and specific methods to identify, separate, and treat sick animals. If those protocols aren’t written out, it’s easy for them to be forgotten until a problem arises. Without proper protocols in place, a minor case of mastitis or BVD can become a major issue with significant consequences on the herd’s health and its profitability.

In the case of FMD, not having a biosecurity plan in place will mean the difference between being able to continue business as usual and effectively closing the doors to your operation. If FMD ever does come to the US and affects a region of the dairy industry, regulatory officials will limit the movement of milk and meat within those affected regions of the country. Farms without approved biosecurity plans in quarantined areas will no longer be able to market their milk, and the cost to their business will be crippling. That is why the National FARM Program and others are working to help more farms put biosecurity plans in place. Like I said earlier, it could be only a matter of time before FMD lands in the US.

In his presentation, Dr. Brightbill shared how enhanced biosecurity has helped contain this outbreak of High Path AI. If the USDA had not begun requiring biosecurity plans in 2014, the number of affected birds could have been much higher right now. Still, for those farmers who have had to depopulate their entire flock and lose their livelihood in a matter of weeks, the path forward is almost unsurmountable. Hopefully, it can serve as a lesson to those of us in dairy about how important biosecurity is and why we need to get our plans in place before it is too late.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence.