Alberta poultry producers are bracing for more outbreaks of a highly transmissible and deadly variant of avian flu that has already taken a toll on flocks in the province.
The highly pathogenic avian influenza strain H5N1, which is spreading quickly across Canada, has been detected at 18 Alberta poultry operations since the province's first case was confirmed in Mountain View County on April 6.
Cases have been detected in two small flocks and 16 commercial flocks in Alberta, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said Tuesday.
As of April 21, 12 Alberta flocks had active outbreaks, accounting for an estimated 340,000 infected birds — the most in any province.
As cases continue to multiply, bird farmers are bracing for losses and doing what they can to keep the infection out of their barns.
"It's an incredibly stressful time," said David Hyink, a poultry farmer who operates a broiler chicken operation near Lacombe, Alta., 125 kilometres south of Edmonton.
"We're being very vigilant."
Hyink inspects his four barns daily for signs of disease among his 135,000 chickens.
Most forms of avian flu are mild but the H5N1 strain can cause serious disease and death in wild and domestic birds.
The disease is not considered a significant concern for humans but infections can wipe out a flock in a matter of days.
With no treatment, an entire flock must be culled to ensure the infection is contained.
"It's a very dangerous disease for birds," said Hyink, who also serves as chair of the Alberta Chicken Producers, the organization that regulates broiler chicken production in the province.
"Once it gets into the flock, it'll spread rapidly. It'll cause major mortality in the barns.
"In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of birds would need to be destroyed."
The CFIA says 2022 has been unprecedented for the spread of avian flu around the world.
Migratory birds are believed responsible for a string of outbreaks across Canada. As wild birds continue to fly north for summer, more cases are expected.
Outbreaks have also been confirmed on poultry farms in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
No cases have been detected in humans in North America.
The CFIA has found no proof of farm-to-farm transmission but more research is needed, said Jeff Notenbomer, who owns Willow Creek Poultry, a broiler-breeding operation in Monarch, Alta., near Lethbridge.
He is also chair of Alberta Hatching Egg Producers, which regulates the production of broiler hatching in the province.
Notenbomer said he had hoped that biosecurity protocols and the distance between most Alberta farms would provide a safety net against infection.
"We are seeing it spread a lot quicker than we were expecting," he said. "That is making us very nervous. How is it spreading? How is it hopping from barn to barn?"
Notenbomer compares the spike in avian flu cases to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when cases were surging, protocols were being strictly enforced and the source of transmission was unclear.
"I think we need to see two weeks without a positive [case] before I'll take a deep breath."
Operators are eligible for compensation for culled birds based on market value. But the formula does not account for the downtime faced by farmers following an outbreak, Notenbomer said.
Notenbomer's farm has around 25,000 chickens and produces about 3.5 million fertilized eggs each year.
Hatcheries like his would take up to two years to reach full production again, he said.
Outbreaks have led to supply chain issues, import restrictions and soaring prices elsewhere but it is not clear if the current outbreaks will impact Canadian consumers.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says many factors are inflating food prices so it's difficult to find a direct link between the virus and costs for eggs and poultry.
Notenbomer said the Canadian industry should be better equipped to absorb the shock of any disruptions due to support provided by the country's supply chain management system.
"When a farm does go down, everything is in place to make the adjustments necessary to keep going but the more cases there are, the harder that gets," he said.
"The supply is stable but I am nervous because it seems to be spreading."
Avian influenza is a reportable disease in Canada. Federal inspectors respond to outbreaks by establishing quarantines and ordering the destruction of all birds that may have been exposed.
Teryn Girard, a poultry veterinarian who works with Prairie Swine Health Services and Cargill, has worked with most of the Alberta farms facing outbreaks.
Spring is flu season for birds and the industry was prepared but this virus is behaving differently, she said.
Farmers are on edge wondering who might be hit next.
This virus isn't reading the textbook. - Teryn Girard
"There's been a lot more reports of dead migratory birds," she said. "That alone has shown us that this virus isn't reading the textbook."
Nicole Thiessen, owner of Button Quail and Poultry in Rochfort Bridge, Alta., sold off most of her birds last month.
She had more than 3,000 quail and 80 laying hens but is down to only 20 birds now.
"We had a large amount of ravens visiting our farm over the winter and watched their numbers decrease," Thiessen said. "That was the first, huge concern."
Thiessen said she is relieved she downsized before the outbreaks started.
"I don't think you could sell a bird to save your life right now."