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What can dairy farmers do to protect their herds from HPAI?

5 Min Read
Dairy cattle at feeder
PRECAUTIONS: Officials are advising dairies in several Plains states to implement biosecurity measures to limit wild birds on their farms that may be carrying HPAI following the diagnosis in two Texas herds and two Kansas herds. Officials stress there is no danger to the public from pasteurized milk products. Jennifer M. Latzke

Officials in Texas and Kansas continue to update the public on the confirmed presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in diagnostic samples from dairies, first reported March 25. Officials in surrounding states, as well, are staying alert and working with dairies to monitor their herds for any potential infections.

Initial reports

In mid-March, initial reports came from two dairies in the Texas Panhandle, and then two farms in western Kansas, of a “mystery illness” that was affecting their older lactating cows.

On March 22, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, affected farms also had reported finding deceased wild birds on their properties, prompting testing for HPAI.

The National Veterinary Service Laboratories confirmed the presence of HPAI in the affected cattle. The NVSL is testing and sequencing the genome to characterize the HPAI strain or strains associated with these affected cattle. As of March 28, NVSL had not found any changes to the virus that indicate mammal-to-mammal transmission; therefore, the risk to the public remains low.

The National Milk Producers Federation, International Dairy Foods Association, U.S. Dairy Export Council and Dairy Management Inc. released a joint statement emphasizing that the “USDA confirmed that there is no threat to human health, and milk and dairy products remain safe to consume. Pasteurization (high heat treatment) kills harmful microbes and pathogens in milk, including the influenza virus.”

Related:Human HPAI case confirmed in Texas

In keeping with the federal Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, milk from sick cows must be collected separately and isn’t allowed to enter the food supply chain.

“Consumers in the United States and around the world can remain confident in the safety and quality of U.S. dairy,” according to the joint statement.

Symptoms and treatment

Mike Brouk, a professor and K-State Extension dairy specialist, spoke to dairy farmers at the Kansas Dairy Annual Convention on March 22 about the symptoms of the disease.

Brouk mentioned that early detection of the illness in some of the initial herds was due to monitors on cows that track their feed intake and movements throughout the day. The illness comes on rapidly and tends to hit older lactating cows more, according to Brouk.

“It starts appearing as the cow is simply off her feed or with digestive upset,” Brouk told dairymen, “followed by a severe drop in production and more symptoms.”

Besides a drop in herd-level milk production or an acute and sudden drop in individual production, farmers also should look for a loss of appetite leading to decreased feed consumption and a change in manure consistency, according to KDA. Some cows may exhibit fever as well.

Related:Avian flu detected in dairy cattle

“The death loss is very low, and it doesn’t impact all the animals in the herd severely,” Brouk added. It seemed only about 5% to 20% of the cows in the herd were impacted, and mostly cows in their second lactation or greater, he said.

Dairies in neighboring states like Nebraska have been on alert, learning about the impacts and trying to make decisions related to management with the outbreak of HPAI in dairy herds. Kris Bousquet, executive director of the Nebraska State Dairy Association, has been in touch with numerous dairy farmers across his state.

“Right now, producers are learning more and more about it,” Bousquet says. “Some producers I’ve talked with have likened it to winter dysentery, for instance, where it moves through the herd and you have to deal with it and move on.”

Brouk said the treatment protocol has been to use treatments for getting cows back on feed and other supportive therapy. For those cows that show symptoms of secondary pneumonia infection, the veterinarian may choose to treat with a specific antibiotic, said Dr. Elsie McCoy, Northeast Kansas field veterinarian for the KDA Division of Animal Health. Fortunately, affected cows seem to recover within two to three weeks. However, there’s some concern that those cows may not return to their previous milk production levels.

McCoy said it’s important that if a dairy farmer thinks a cow or cows may have HPAI, that they work with their veterinarian for treatment, and to collect samples and send them to the Kansas state veterinarian. Producers also can report cases to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at 866-536-7593.

Biosecurity measures

Wild birds typically spread avian influenza in the spring and fall as they migrate to and from seasonal homes. It is uncommon for HPAI to affect dairy cows, but USDA’s APHIS has been tracking detections of HPAI in mammals for many years in the U.S.

Already, dairy farmers in Texas and Kansas have begun implementing their enhanced biosecurity protocols, such as limiting traffic into and out of their properties and restricting visits to employees and essential personnel. Dairies in surrounding states are taking precautions as well.

So far, there have been no sick animals reported in neighboring Nebraska; however, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture issued an importation order effective April 1. The order requires all breeding female dairy cattle entering the state of Nebraska to obtain a permit issued by NDA prior to entry.

To obtain a permit, producers will need to contact the department. The new importation order will be in place for 30 days until April 30 and will be reevaluated at that time, NDA reported in a news release. 

“Because it appears that it can spread through the nasal passages from bird defecation on feed, for instance, protecting feed sources is important,” Bousquet explains. With larger dairies that are enclosed, this isn’t as much of an issue as it is for dairies with open barns, where birds might roost.

Covering feed and water sources to prevent contamination from wild birds and controlling birds around the farm are solutions Bousquet suggests.

The important part to remember is that avian influenza is an animal health issue, not a human health concern, and that mammals do not spread avian influenza to other mammals, according to the dairy industry joint statement.

Birds are the transmission vector, and it’s the prolonged exposure to infected birds or their feces that can transmit HPAI. Humans, according to the joint dairy statement, are rarely in prolonged contact with infected wild birds, but farms are implementing procedures to protect their employees as a measure of caution.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association released a statement March 25 noting that although to date HPAI had not been detected in beef cattle, beef producers are encouraged to implement enhanced biosecurity measures on their farms and ranches to protect herds.

The National Dairy FARM Program has several biosecurity resources online for dairy farmers.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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