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Avian flu has hit Utah’s turkey flocks hard this year

Utah avian flu, turkey farming, Utah Natural Meats, West Jordan
Kristine Weller
A customer walks into the Utah Natural Meat store in West Jordan, marked by the red barn. It was pickup day and many people were going in and out.

Avian influenza has been especially bad in the U.S. Forty-six states and over 50 million birds have been affected since February.

The virus occurs naturally in wild birds and is spread through nasal and oral discharges and fecal droppings. It’s almost uniformly fatal to turkeys, chickens, ducks and waterfowl.

“This is definitely the worst time that we’ve ever dealt with the influenza in avian species in Utah,” said Utah State University Extension Poultry Specialist David Frame.

More than 700,000 turkeys have been depopulated in Utah and at least 16 farms and 25 facilities have been affected. This constraint in supply is one of many reasons behind this year’s higher turkey prices heading into Thanksgiving. For example, Dylan Hughes, a poultry market reporter from Urner Barry, said 10-pound turkey hens are $1.85 per pound. That’s about a 40% increase from last year — which was the highest year on record.

Inflation, the cost of feedstuffs, transportation and the drought have also contributed. Frame said feed prices are at least 10% higher than last year and recent weather conditions have limited grain and soybean growth.

Utah avian flu, turkey farming, Shayn Bowler
Kristine Weller
Shayn Bowler in front of the meat locker at Utah Natural Meat. He uses a wagon to transport the heavy boxes of meat right to customers’ cars. Bowler has owned Utah Natural Meat for 15 years and is a fifth-generation farmer.

For the first time in 15 years, Shayn Bowler decided not to raise turkeys partly because of the high feed prices. He owns Utah Natural Meat and is the fifth generation of his family to run the farm.

“Not being able to control feed prices would be a major problem, and so we didn’t want to end up with turkey that were, like $200 plus each and not be able to sell them,” Bowler said.

Fortunately, Bowler hasn’t had any issues with avian flu on his farm.

“All of the farmers that I know that are small farmers raising [turkeys] haven’t had any trouble with [avian flu].”

Right now, almost the entire country is seeing an increase in avian flu cases because of the fall migration of waterfowl, but Utah has been dealing with it longer than usual.

“Utah is one of the few states that didn’t get a break during the summer,” said Dean Taylor, the Utah State Veterinarian.

When one bird gets the disease, the whole flock has to be euthanized.

“When we depopulate, we’re really speeding up what’s probably going to happen anyway. They’re all going to die from it,” Taylor said. “It’s a try to contain the disease so it doesn’t spread to other farms.”

If birds aren’t depopulated quickly another farm can quickly succumb to infection.

Taylor said people with backyard flocks should keep their birds under shelter during the migration. Avoiding ponds where waterfowl feed will also help to prevent the spread.

Kristine Weller is a newsroom intern at KUER. She’s only been a journalist for a year but is excited to see what the future holds.
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