US turkey farm bounces back after bird flu

16-12-2015 | | |
The Moline family lost 56,000 turkeys in total. When the virus hit many birds became critically ill, the rest were euthanised. [Photos: Moline family]
The Moline family lost 56,000 turkeys in total. When the virus hit many birds became critically ill, the rest were euthanised. [Photos: Moline family]

Brad Moline couldn’t be happier. After a tough time in which bird flu contaminated his turkeys, it is finally time to look ahead again. “It is great to have birds back. We are two thirds full now. And the birds are doing well.” The biggest outbreak of an animal disease in the US history also presented some valuable lessons for the Iowa farmer. “If we don’t learn from the process, then that would be failure.”

The 19th of May was a tuesday morning. A typical morning for the Moline family in Manson, Iowa. “We were doing tours,” says the American poultry producer. “A couple of guys and myself were going through the brooder houses. After that I was working with the pressure washer. We stopped for a morning break at about ten o’ clock. That is also a meeting to hear how the turkeys are doing and to see what we’ll do further. Then we discovered that one of the gentlemen had gotten hold of my father. Because I was on the pressure washer and didn’t hear my phone.”

Bird flu

Father John Moline had gone to the finisher building. The turkeys had been all right the night before. Brad adds, “It was a building with 7,000 turkeys and it had 90 dead ones in there. You could see the whole flock was getting sick quickly. They were panting. It was about 65 degrees F in there, and the birds looked like it was a 100 degrees. Panting, trying to cough and they were dying very, very rapidly. Unfortunately we knew right away what it was: bird flu. We had been doing about everything we possibly could to keep it out. It kind of felt like we lost the fight.”

Independent for generations

The Moline family came to Iowa in the 1800’s. Brad started farming pretty much since the time he could walk. “We’ve been on this location since 1924. I’m a third generation on this farm. I started raising my own turkeys when I was in grade school. I went to Iowa State University, got a degree in animal science and dairy science. Then returned home to the farm full time in 2002 and I’ve been in charge of turkey production ever since, along with my father John and my brother Grant.”

The family grows about 1,800 acres of corn and soybeans. “We can provide enough soybeans and corn for our turkeys. But we actually buy a complete feed and sometimes sell the corn to a feed mill. That just depends on the year and the marketing decisions we make. We’re very close to ethanol plants up here as well, so there are different opportunities. But we do buy a complete feed at a feed mill a few miles away.”

The turkeys are from the genetic company Hybrid. The Molines are independent producers, so they buy the turkeys the day they’re hatched. “We get flocks in of 28,000 day old turkey poults. Every nine weeks we try to get them in here. They’re grown and then marketed through West Liberty Foods. We’re part of the cooperation that owns the company. From there they go to Subway Sandwich.”

The turkeys come first

A normal day on the farm? “Every morning just about everybody – my father, my brother and myself and our four full time workers – has some kind of turkey tour to do. I take care of the brooder houses, where the baby turkeys grow. My brother goes through the finisher houses. It’s a family run operation, and the turkeys really do come first. Then it depends on where we are in the year. Like today, we are in the harvest season right now. We have combines running and semi trucks hauling grain. When I hire new help I always tell them: “No two days are entirely the same.”

Bird health challenges

“Before the bird flu, we were rolling along good. We were crancking out about 155,000 turkeys a year or more. Turkeys were coming in and out of the farm every nine weeks. Sure, we had a few struggles here and there. You always have bird health challenges that you need to stay on top off. But our records have always been good. We get good growth rates.”

Then at the beginning of 2015 news about the bird flu broke. First in northern Minnesota. The Iowa Turkey Federation tried to keep everyone posted. “Immediately, we stopped hunters and fishers coming in, and keeping their vehicles far away from the buildings. We thought, we do not want anyone close who might have been near ducks and geese. Anyone who did have to enter the farm, we made them change their boots and wash their vehicles.”

Disaster strikes

But it kept getting closer. Brad remembers: “You could just feel it creeping in. We always change boots going into every finisher barn and our brooder barns are shower in/shower out. So we felt we were fairly protected. But we added one more step.We put foot baths outside of every finisher barn, so in the area where they were changing boots there could not be any contamination either. So, on the people end of things, we really felt we were as protected as we could get.”

Still, the disease came in. “There is no real smoking gun,” says the Manson farmer. “But my best guess are the sparrows. The virus load was so high in the area, that it could have been transferred by anything from sparrows to starlings. Our finisher barns are naturally ventilated. We have what we call a ridge vent. This is basically a 16 inch opening over the entire length of the building. We tried bird netting it years ago, but all it did was plug up with dust and feathers from the heath and humidity up there because we put it on the inside of the barn.”

Turkeys mingled with sparrows

Actually, the sparrows never really were a high priority. The Moline farm used to grow free range turkey for decades. They finally quit in 2002 because the birds just couldn’t be handled outside anymore. Because of the intense breeding and because it took too much labour. Moline adds, “The point is, our turkeys mingled with sparrows and other birds all those years. But I do think the sparrows brought in the virus. Carrying it on their feathers, feet or whatever.”

Looking back, Moline says: ‘“Hats off to the Iowa Turkey Federation. They did a great job in informing us about everything that was going on – arranging meetings with the USDA, even with US secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack. At first the USDA was not prepared for an outbreak of this size. They didn’t have the manpower nor the organisation. But to their credit, secretary Vilsack, chief veteran officer John Clifford and doctor Jack Shere stepped it up and made the necessary changes to stop the virus.”


In the end the turkeys on all the three sites of the Moline farm had to be euthanised. “The first contamination was at our home site. We have two barns with 7,000 birds – at both barns the birds were euthanised. At a different site we have three barns and they became positive. Two of the three barns were sick, but the birds at the third barn had to be killed as well. A week later at our third site the birds became sick. That was the tough part – seeing healthy birds being killed. In about two weeks, we lost 56,000 turkeys.”

“It really breaks your heart. Especially as an independent producer. You get the birds the day they’re hatched. You have a bond with them. You work your butt off to grow a healthy bird. Not only for food safety reasons, but for your own pride. You want the biggest, strongest and healthiest bird you can produce. Washing the water, making sure the litter’s dry, treating any sick bird. That stuff you do every single day. And boy, when something like this happens, it comes through like a tidal wave. It really takes the wind out of your sails.”


Euthanising the birds really breaks a producers heart, especially when they are seemingly healthy at that moment in time.


The family decided to clean up everything themselves. “Composting the birds, cleaning every single barn, from top to bottom. Washed it down again. We disinfected with a heat process to a hundred degrees. And then killing any left-over virus with a fog. Then we had the barns environmentally tested by the USDA. All of our barns came back negative. Then they sat through a 20 day fallow period, when you don’t go in or out of the barn. On July 21st our first two sites were cleared for repopulation and we started to repopulate on July the 31st.”

At that particular time there was no shortage of eggs. “We were the first in the state. So the first squad was not a question of getting the birds. Now that everybody is restocking, the egg shortage is very significant. Our second flock has been delayed two weeks. I think industry-wide, everybody has delays of two to three weeks now to get new poults in. It might take a year to get the poult supply streamlined again.”


The family decided to clean up everything themselves. “Composting the birds, cleaning every single barn, from top to bottom. Washed it down again. We disinfected with a heat process to a hundred degrees. And then killing any left-over virus with a fog.”

Birds are back

Brad’s family gave the green light to make the restocking a media event. First because we were the first ones in the state of Iowa to restock. Second because I believe that US citizens need to know that food safety is the number 1 priority for farmers. We want to produce this big healthy turkey. The media did a good job explaining there never was any risk to human health.

It was also good to explain why egg prices are high and turkey prices as well.”

Several months later, familiar sounds of poults and turkeys come out of barns again. “It is great to have birds back. We are two thirds full now. And we definitely learned from this process. All the measures we took as temporarily are now permanent. All vehicles have got to park away from the farm. There are foot baths before you go into any of the barns. The biggest thing for us, is a system to keep all sparrows out. We introduced a net over the top of the barns. That took some engineering, but we’re on the right path. If we don’t learn from the process then that would be failure.”


From left to right; Brad, Grand and John Moline. “It is great to have birds back. We are two thirds full now. And we definitely learned from this process.”

Future outbreaks

“Another lesson industry-wide is that we need to have a de-
population goal of 24 hours or less. If we do that, then in future outbreaks you may not stop every single case, but we will not have the massive outbreak like we had this time. The USDA has adopted this idea, which I suggested in Washington in July. The best thing to have would be a vaccine. That was the first question we asked, when bird flu showed up. “Has it been developed and when will it be available?” Without any doubt we will be in favour of protecting our birds with this new method.”