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County fair exhibitions will continue, even without live birds

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Courtesy of Michigan State University Extension
Michigan has to go 30 days without a detection of the high contagious avian influenza, also known as bird flu, in domesticated poultry before poultry and waterfowl exhibitions can continue.

Just as we’re moving closer to fair season, state officials have announced all statewide poultry and waterfowl exhibitions in Michigan are banned due to the rise in cases of the highly contagious avian influenza, also known as bird flu.

The announcement came on the same day Michigan confirmed its first bird flu outbreak at a commercial poultry farm in Muskegon County. More than 35,000 birds will be culled.

Michigan’s state veterinarian Dr. Nora Wineland says this outbreak is different, and likely worse, than the one in 2015 because then, the virus only appeared in wild birds, not domestic poultry.

"We're seeing point source introductions continue from the wild birds, we had hoped to see that diminish as temperatures warmed and the bird migrations moved on. And we haven't seen that diminishing happening yet," said Wineland.

Nearly 40 million birds have been impacted by bird flu nationwide. So far this year, Michigan has responded to 12 cases in non-commercial backyard flocks in nine counties across both the upper and lower peninsulas.

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Courtesy of Michigan State University Extension

Michigan’s new guidelines follow other state pauses on poultry exhibitions. Before exhibits can continue. Wineland said "the state would need to go 30 days without any detections of highly pathogenic avian influenza in domestic poultry."

Since most of Michigan’s county fairs aren’t until late June, early July, it’s possible they won’t be impacted.

But the Marion Fair in Osceola County will be the state’s first fair on June 12.

Jacob Stieg is the Osceola County 4-H program coordinator through Michigan State University Extension. He’s also the 4-H poultry project point of contact for MSU. He said he's been through this before and is helping lead a small team develop plans to help 4-H programming continue across the state.

"Plan B is using plush birds, which for the listeners are like stuffed animals, but on a little bit higher end, where the youth will go up and actually do their showmanship process at the fair, like they have a live bird and some of the reactions of the plush bird is similar to the live animal," said Stieg.

Stieg said not having the live birds does not significantly impact students' ability to learn. But he said there are youth who have been preparing their show birds for a long time and some sell their birds as, essentially, a summer job.

"Many of these youth are coming to the county fair and they want to display what they've been doing," Stieg mentioned. "And it's with no live animals there that can be a challenge with that. But at the fair will have pictures of their birds at home for the show stock."

Stieg said in his county alone, more than 100 kids show poultry. There is no exact data on statewide participation rates, but it’s likely in the thousands. And in the rural northern lower peninsula, raising poultry is part of the fabric of everyday life.

"It just gives them a sense of where their meat’s being produced. And it's just keeping them to the roots, where most of our counties were built up on the rural agricultural sector," Stieg noted.

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Courtesy of Michigan State University Extension

This year's outbreak has raised questions about mitigation strategies and preventing the next outbreak. And that is stirring debate around the issue of using a bird flu vaccine, which is currently illegal in the U.S. The vaccine is legal in China and Mexico.

"There's some controversy with vaccinating birds," said Dr. Joe Sullivan, a veterinarian at Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac.

Sullivan recently testified at a 2023 Farm Bill hearing in East Lansing about the need to legalize the bird flu vaccine.

"It is becoming more accepted," said Sullivan. "Biosecurity is great and very important. But it is only one tool in the toolbox. We need multiple tools. And this is such a severe virus to be impacted with that we do need to go that next step. And looking at the other diseases we've eradicated in the human population as well vaccine is needed, and it is proven," said Sullivan.

To be clear, if approved, this vaccine would only apply to commercial poultry, not backyard flocks. In an email to WCMU, a spokesperson for USDA said they are "studying several available vaccines to determine if they are effective against the current outbreak strain of the HPAI (bird flu) virus."

However, "vaccination by itself cannot eradicate HPAI, which is the USDA goal," wrote the spokesperson.

USDA told WCMU that a vaccine could mask the virus, making it harder to identify cases and cause more spread, which therefore, hurts surveillance because it’s hard to tell the difference between a vaccinated bird and an infected bird.

There’s also the financial and logistical nature of vaccinating billions of birds. USDA said vaccination makes trading partners hesitant to accept poultry from countries who vaccinate against bird flu, which could restrict trade worth $4 billion annually in the U.S.

Sullivan noted during his testimony for the 2023 Farm Bill that USDA needs to be more transparent in regards to its indemnity conditions (insurance programs) for when a producer is struck by the virus and has to cull their flock.

USDA provided all of their indemnity conditions to WCMU. However, Sullivan believes these need to be updated because the cost of raising birds is changing.

"And the system we operate in is changing," said Sullivan. "Some smaller producers won't be able to have the capital to make it out even with the money provided for depopulation."

The market is also shifting to organic products, which costs poultry producers more money because of costs like seed being more expensive and "it's required by law by 2025, in the state of Michigan, that all eggs are cage free," Sullivan noted.

And on top of these issues, the virus might mutate and jump species. The Michigan DNR recently confirmed three red foxes died from bird flu in southeast Michigan. It was the state’s first confirmation of the virus in wild mammals a sign that we may be a long way away from being out of the woods from bird flu.

Rick joined WCMU as a general assignment reporter in March 2022.