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Chicken industry growing despite challenges

Ontario’s chicken production industry is strong and continues to grow.

The latest version of Avian flu wreaked havoc on chicken producers this spring. It relented in the summer with still-to-be-seen impacts in the fall.

Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO) is the farm organization that represents the 1,300 farm families who produce chicken in the province. The industry is strong with a farm-gate value of $920 million. When corn and soybean producers, chick hatcheries and chicken processors are added to the mix, the value jumps to more than $3.8 billion annually. The corresponding employment is more than 22,000 jobs.

One of the threats facing chicken producers presently is the current outbreak of avian flu.

Tom Baker, incident commander and manager of the Feather Board Command Centre (FBCC), oversees industry’s avian flu response in Ontario. This organization was set up a decade ago with the CFO, Turkey Farmers of Ontario, Egg Producers of Ontario and the Ontario Broiler Hatching Egg and Chick Commission.

The current outbreak is the largest outbreak of avian flu seen in Canada. It’s been found in nine of 10 provinces. The outbreak started in Newfoundland last December and has worked its way across Canada. It was last found in Ontario in mid-May. As of late-summer, it been confirmed in 115 flocks across Canada

“It’s not over yet and we are somewhat surprised by that,” Baker said. “It’s tied to wild bird migration. We expected it to settle down after that (spring migration).”

Baker says the virus often hits quickly and with high mortality in the barns within 24 hours. In a number of flocks, there was 50 to 80 per cent mortality within a day.

“It varies on the type of bird and age of the bird and type of production,” Baker said.

If it’s found in a barn, all birds are euthanized to stop suffering and control disease spread.

When Baker was interviewed in mid-August, the impact was 2.2 million birds had died from the disease or were euthanized on a national level.

“That’s not as big as some European countries and the United States,” he said.

Breaking down the damage to Ontario only, there were 20 commercial flocks hit and six non-commercial. The death toll is at 560,000.

The challenge is there are simultaneous outbreaks in different provinces at the same time, which hasn’t been the case in the past.

With all commercial flocks having high bio-security measures in place, Baker tried to explain the transmission. “It comes down to a real basic principle – we have to assume fields and barn yards are contaminated. Anything that can carry the fecal matter into barns is a problem.”

Even with the best bio-security, Baker said a rodent or wild bird getting into the barn can transmit the virus. Although anyone entering the barn is supposed to not just decontaminate their boots but also change them, Baker said in the real world it doesn’t always happen.

It can take as little as one gram of feces to contaminate a barn.

“The hope was a virus this hot would burn out,” Baker said. “We will have to wait to see if the infected wild birds expired in the Arctic (to see if another bout starts in the fall)”.

At the onset of the outbreak in March, the FBCC recommended heightened bio-security measures be put in place. TWhen the restrictions were lifted in mid-July, there hadn’t been any cases in a couple of months. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) maintains controls over bird movement in several Primary Control Zones in the province as recovery measures continue.

Baker said there is an impact on farmers, not only through the loss of the infected birds but also the quarantine period on the farm premises after the infection. The CFIA Zone movement controls created an administrative and financial burden on all poultry farmers and industry service providers within the Zones.

On the positive side, recognizing one of the large issues that is facing the entire farm industry – getting new producers involved – the CFO launched the New Entrant Chicken Farmer Program in 2012. Since then, 34 new producers have started.

“The New Entrant Chicken Farmer Program is designed to guide a successful transition into the chicken industry for successful applicants,” said Denise Hockaday, CEO of Chicken Farmers of Ontario. “CFO looks forward to welcoming new farm-families into the growing chicken industry.”

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