As avian flu endures, Texas poultry farmers try to protect their flocks

When it comes to chickens, Kenny Johnson is a seasoned expert. He knows their attitude, how they’ll react to bright colors, what foods they like best. He can tell a good squawk from a bad squawk.

Most important, Johnson can tell when a chicken is sick. For poultry farmers, that can be a vital skill for keeping the flock healthy and productive. At Happy Chick Farms — Johnson’s pasture-raised egg farm just outside of Lockhart, where his birds amble around, pecking and fluttering — one illness can spread through hundreds of chickens in a matter of days.

Fortunately, Johnson, 48, hasn’t dealt with anything too deadly in the 13 years he’s been in the poultry business. He is always aware, however, of the one sickness with a 100 percent fatality rate.

Avian flu — a highly contagious bird flu — has made a comeback in the United States. Since early 2022, there have been 767 reported outbreaks of avian flu across 47 states, killing almost 60 million birds, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Texas, there have been four outbreaks, infecting nearly 2,000 birds in Lampasas, Dallas, Denton and Erath counties.

The United States poultry industry supports over 2 million jobs, according to the Texas Farm Bureau. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. In Texas, poultry and egg companies employed 40,500 people as of 2021, according to the 2017 census. Broilers and eggs are one of the largest agricultural commodities in the state.

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The last time avian flu swept through the United States was between 2014 to 2015, when more than 50 million birds died, causing the price of eggs to increase to more than double in some areas. Now — along with inflation and an increased demand — the flu’s resurgence is causing egg prices to rise again. The average cost for eggs is about 60 percent higher than usual.

Because of this, farmers like Johnson are wary and taking precautions. This means clean shoes, disinfectants, fewer visitors and a watchful eye.

One bout of avian flu can wipe out production for an entire season.

“If we had a more diverse network of small family farms producing eggs, the effect of the avian flu would not be so detrimental,” Johnson said. “We’ve put our eggs in one basket.”

A hen is seen laying in a nesting box at Happy Chick Farms in Lockhart on Feb. 24, 2023.

A hen is seen laying in a nesting box at Happy Chick Farms in Lockhart on Feb. 24, 2023.

Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

A never-ending bird flu

After the 2015 bird flu nearly decimated Midwestern chicken farms, the United States was able to largely extinguish the outbreak and eradicate the disease from commercial and backyard populations.

This time, however, the disease may be here to stay.

Martin Ficken, resident director at the veterinary medical diagnostic laboratory at Texas A&M in Gonzales, said avian flu will most likely be endemic, meaning regularly occurring.

“Last year, the avian flu showed up again and it wasn’t as bad originally, but it has never gone away,” Ficken said. “During the last one, we were able to extinguish the flu in the summertime, because the virus doesn’t survive as readily in warmer temperatures. After last summer, the flu never really went away.”

The main reason for this is because the virus evolves and mutates over time. In certain birds, it can change to become more highly infectious but less deadly. Migratory birds, such as ducks and geese, are carriers of the disease but don’t get sick. They will then mingle with other birds and shed the virus in chicken farms and backyard coops through feces or other secretions.

Chickens and other poultry who are infected with avian flu typically die within 48 hours.

“We just haven’t been able to stamp this (flu) out yet,” Ficken said.

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Fortunately, avian flu in Texas is normally less severe than in the Midwest. Texas’ climate is hotter and stays hotter longer, which helps keep the flu at bay. States like Minnesota and Iowa are colder and have more lakes and water for migratory waterfowl. Since 2022, Minnesota has lost thousands of chickens and turkeys to avian flu. In one county alone, there have been 13 outbreaks in commercial turkey meat production, killing nearly 500,000 of the birds.

While the outbreak hasn’t been severe in Texas, farmers here are wary. Joshua Falks, general manager for Southern Cross Poultry in Gonzales, said the facility incorporates biosecurity measures to keep diseases and contaminants off the premises. The farm raises chicks and sells them to other chicken companies. About 4,000 to 5,000 chickens are moved a day.

The company tests its flock every month for avian flu. It hasn’t yet had to deal with the disease, but about six years ago, the flock got fowl pox, another mild-to-severe avian illness, and the company had to euthanize some birds.

“You can easily have $20,000 to $30,000 invested in a chicken house and then you have around five houses, and if one of those houses gets infected, it’s not just that, we might have to kill everything on the farm,” Falks said. “You could be looking at a quarter of a million dollars in loss.”

Hens peer over nesting boxes in their hen house at Happy Chick Farms in Lockhart on Feb. 24, 2023.

Hens peer over nesting boxes in their hen house at Happy Chick Farms in Lockhart on Feb. 24, 2023.

Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

Chicken protection

Because of the potential for monetary losses, big commercial farms, companies like Southern Cross Poultry require their employees to follow a list of biosecurity measures. This could mean anything from wearing coveralls and shoe covers to changing clothes, shoes and gloves before and after entering a chicken house. This also means visitors from outside the company are often not allowed inside.

Smaller farms or people with backyard coops might be less strict, but some of them incorporate similar tactics, experts say.

Sherry Lim, a backyard farm educator in Bexar County, advises chicken owners to wash their boots, at least partially cover their coops and quarantine chickens for at least 20 days if they are looking sick.

“If I get to someone else’s house to check on their chickens, I actually wash off or spray some rubbing alcohol on my shoes,” Lim said. “Then when I get home to see my own chickens, I do the same thing.”

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Lim, 37, decided to leave her job as a science teacher a few years ago to work full-time educating people with smaller chicken farms on how to best take care of their flock. Lim teaches at Gardopia Gardens, a community garden on San Antonio’s east side, and the Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne. She also has about 30 backyard chicken customers she checks on when needed, she said.

Several times a month, Lim hosts classes on chicken care. One of the biggest discussions is about diseases, including avian flu. Most attendees ask a lot about how to protect their chickens and how to notice an infected bird, she said.

Lim tells them that most sick chickens will be lethargic with a twisted neck and paralysis. These symptoms are also prevalent in other diseases, so Lim said to quarantine the chicken no matter what if possible. This could save the other chickens from infection, but since the flu is so contagious, the disease could have already spread. In that case, the birds should be culled and the farm decontaminated before bringing in new chickens.

There have been no reported cases in Bexar County, but Lim said it’s important to know what to expect just in case.

For Johnson at Happy Chick Farms, it’s not just about biosecurity, but keeping a thriving flock. A healthy chicken with lots of room has a better chance of survival than a stressed, sickly chicken, he said.

“There is no perfect prevention for any of it,” Johnson said. “But I’ve always found that the best thing to do is have a healthy, happy flock. Don’t overcrowd them and keep an eye on your birds.”

Elena Bruess writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.