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COVID-19 forces poultry growers to kill birds

Long-term housing management should focus on making sure pathogens aren’t present.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

April 14, 2020

5 Min Read
Chickens inside poultry house
POULTRY DEPOPULATION: According to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., the company will depopulate nearly 2 million chickens on several farms in both Delaware and Maryland. Thinkstock

With many workers not showing up to work at Delmarva poultry processing plants, at least one integrator is starting to depopulate its poultry houses, an indication that the poultry supply chain is starting to buckle under the pressure of COVID-19.

Although it hasn’t been officially confirmed with the company — American Agriculturist tried to confirm with the company twice to no avail — a letter circulating on Facebook last week with the Allen Harim letterhead at the top indicated that selected growers were notified last Friday that their flocks were being depopulated.

The letter states that attendance at Allen Harim’s processing plants has been 50% of normal the past two weeks and that the company initially tried reducing the number of eggs and chicks it placed in order to mitigate it. But the results of the initial mitigation won’t be seen for at least six weeks, leaving the company no choice but to start depopulating houses.

The letter states that affected growers would be “compensated fairly” by the company.

According to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., the company will depopulate nearly 2 million chickens on several farms in both Delaware and Maryland.

Managing houses

Georgie Cartanza, University of Delaware poultry Extension educator, said any grower with houses sitting empty for an extended period should follow standard procedures for maintaining the houses until new flocks are delivered.

Related:Slaughterhouses start to shut down

“If you are in [an] area still experiencing freezing temperatures then all water lines should be drained, rooms with water sources should be secure to prevent freezing,” she said. “The weather is rather unpredictable right now.”

Depopulating, or euthanization, is done either one of two ways: Foaming, which was used to address the avian influenza outbreak in 2015 in the Midwest; or ventilation shutdown of a house.  

Cartanza said birds can be composted either in the house, in a manure storage building or in a windrow pile.

“The initial composting process, if done properly, will take approximately 14 days. Then the piles may be turned to go through a second heat. That may take place in the poultry house or in a manure storage building, or a covered-with row pile outside,” she said, adding that growers should follow their local Department of Agriculture guidelines for proper dead bird disposal.

“If a house has had birds composted in it, once the material is cleaned out it would be beneficial to shock the pad with a pH-lowering product to help reduce any pathogens that could be present. This isn't required; it could be helpful for future placed flocks,” she said. “If there is going to be an extended layout, remove feed from pans, condition litter immediately, address any repairs. Utilize downtime to get house in best order possible to stack the deck in the growers’ favor on the next placed flock.”

Related:Smithfield shutters South Dakota plant

She said that some insurance companies even offer loss of income as part of their policy. 

Jon Moyle, Extension specialist with the University of Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore Research and Education Center, said that if birds are depopulated for a production reason and the carcasses removed, then standard down-time procedures can be followed.

“It is important to remember to keep at least the minimum ventilation running between flocks to air the barns out between flocks,” Moyle said.

Meat supply warnings

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across the meat supply chain as farmers continue losing their markets due to processors having to either cut back on production or employees getting sick at plants.

On Sunday, Smithfield Foods Inc, the world’s biggest pork producer, shut down its Sioux Falls, S.D., plant — which accounts for 4% to 5% of U.S. pork production — after state officials reported more than 200 coronavirus cases among its employees.

The company warned that closures across the country are taking American meat supplies “perilously close to the edge” of shortfalls.

JBS Souderton just outside Philadelphia announced a partial shutdown of its beef slaughtering facility late last month after some of its employees were suspected of being infected with coronavirus. This left many beef producers in the Northeast without a market for finished cattle.

Cargill temporarily closed a meat processing plant near Hazleton, Pa., as a result of the pandemic.

Two other Delmarva poultry integrators — Tyson and Perdue Farms — said Monday that they were not depopulating flocks at this time.

“We haven’t had to depopulate flocks and we hope it doesn’t come to that, but we won’t speculate about the future,” said Chad Martin, group president of poultry for Tyson.

“We are not depopulating flocks and do not have current plans to do that,” said a spokeswoman for Perdue Farms.

Mountaire and Amick Farms, the other two major poultry integrators on Delmarva, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a recent article in the Poultry Times, Perdue CEO Randy Day talked about the company’s proactive measures in preventing the contagion from spreading to its employees:

"For example, at our plants, we are practicing social distancing not only in common areas, such as break rooms and cafeterias, but also on the production lines where possible. Where social distancing isn't possible, we are rolling out temporary installations of dividers between our associates on production lines,” Day said.

Cartanza, who is also a poultry grower, said the next few months will be tough for growers, especially those who will be asked to depopulate flocks.

“I understand it from a business perspective, but from a grower perspective, for anybody that's out there … this will be really emotionally and mentally draining to go through this," she said. “They've invested their time, their attention, their resources into these chickens.”

The National Chicken Council on Monday requested assistance from the federal government to help the poultry industry deal with the pandemic.

Read more about:

Covid 19

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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