Bird Flu Drives Free-Range Hens Indoors to Protect Poultry

Des Moines, IA (Associated Press) — Is it OK for free-range chickens to not range freely?

That’s a question free-range egg producers have been pondering lately as they try to be open about their product while also protecting chickens from a highly infectious bird flu that has killed roughly 28 million poultry across the country.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that chickens be moved indoors to protect against the disease, but while some are keeping their hens inside, not everyone agrees.

John Brunnquell, the CEO of Indiana-based Egg Innovations, which contracts with more than 50 farms in five states to produce free-range and pasture-raised eggs, said any of his chickens in states with bird flu cases will stay in “confinement mode” until the risk passes.

The farms Brunnquell contracts with are in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Wisconsin, all of which have had at least once case of bird flu.

But some, like Mike Badger, the executive director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, are taking a different approach.

Badger, whose Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group has about 1,000 members across the country, believes birds kept outdoors are at less risk of infection than chickens and turkeys raised amid thousands of others in large, enclosed barns.

Commercial outdoor flocks make up only a small percentage of U.S. egg production.

About 6 million hens, or 2% of national flock, are free-range and about 4.2 million hens, or 1.3% of U.S. egg production, are from pasture-raised chickens.

Chickens are categorized as free-range or pasture-raised primarily by the amount of time they spend outdoors and space they are provided.

Certification agencies monitor farms to ensure they don’t use bird flu as an excuse to keep birds inside too long.

Brunnquell said none of his farms had infections during the last big outbreak in 2015, and he hasn’t had any cases this year.

In recent months, bird flu cases have been identified in commercial chicken and turkey farms or in backyard flocks in 29 states, according to the USDA.

Spread of the disease is largely blamed on the droppings of infected migrating wild birds.

Bird flu likely will remain a problem for at least several more weeks as migrating waterfowl will remain on the move in the Mississippi Flyway until June.

In the past, warmer weather and the end of migration brought an end to bird flu cases, allowing turkey and chicken farmers to begin the monthslong process of replenishing flocks and resuming production.

For the full article, click here.