When a historic, devastating virus attacked Minnesota’s poultry industry, it felt like a tornado warning sounded every day for nearly three months, describes Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
Minnesota ranks No. 1 in the nation in turkey production. Any threat to the health of this industry is taken seriously. Just as with the response to natural disasters, agricultural agencies prepared for a response to a potential outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza. Known as HPAI, the illness causes death in birds within 48 hours. The virus crossed the Minnesota border in March of 2015.
With the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HPAI written response plan as their guide, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and Minnesota Department of Agriculture led more than a dozen agencies in the fight to eradicate the disease within about three months.
“It was an unprecedented event – the largest animal disease outbreak in U.S. history,” says Mike Starkey, emergency management director for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Around 9 million turkeys and chickens in the state succumbed to the disease, with nearly 20 percent of the 48 million birds impacted nationwide. The disease spread to 108 Minnesota farms in 23 counties before the last positive identification on June 3, 2015.
Starkey, who served as the incident commander of Minnesota’s response, says at the height of the effort, more than 600 people from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and other agencies worked to stop the spread of the disease.
“This was a non-partisan effort with bi-partisan support,” Olson says. “Everyone came together and asked, ‘What needs to be done?’ ”
That included an immediate funding response from the governor’s office and Minnesota legislature.
Within nine months of the initial outbreak, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and
Minnesota Department of Agriculture reported that nearly every quarantined farm had been released. By January 2016, at least 95 percent of farms had restocked and returned to normal operations.
“Livestock production is an important part of our state’s agricultural economy so we’ve been preparing and training for years to respond to an animal disease outbreak,” Starkey says. “The partnerships we’ve formed and relationships we’ve established at the county, state and federal levels played a key role in our ability to effectively respond to this devastating disease.”