Given that I’ve been talking about why I want to get off the hatchery treadmill for several weeks now, I thought I might just add a little background information as to the reasons why.
Read the headlines and you might think every chicken in the U.S. has the flu. As is so often the case with the national media, however, reality is quite different. As of April 1, 2015, this is what the bird flu outbreak really looked like.
I found this map very interesting, for a number of reasons. First, please note the distribution of affected counties. Most are in the Pacific Northwest, not the Midwest. Second, this map (see page two) indicates the numbers in each county. In most cases, you’re looking at one bird, one backyard flock or one commercial flock per county. That’s particularly true in the Pacific Northwest. The outbreaks in the Midwest — where a single flock may include many thousands of birds — are mostly in commercial flocks.
As a result (maybe — given the highly manipulated nature of commodity markets, this may be because producers are leaping on a profit opportunity rather than because there really are shortages) egg prices are going up.
I don’t mean to make light of the problem. The mortality rate for some kinds of highly pathogenic avian flu can be as high as 90-100% in chickens. But — and I think it’s a big but — the real issue is that we have concentrated millions of chickens in confinement. When you cram lots of birds (or humans, for that matter) into a small space, an infection can go through the whole flock in very short order. Much of the fallout from this disease is because poultry farmers must kill many birds in the vicinity of the infection to prevent the spread of the disease. What would happen if you let the disease run its course? Yes, you would lose many birds. However, the remaining birds would have demonstrated immunity.
Wild birds are the most likely source of the infection, yet they rarely get sick. Ask yourself, why is this disease so devastating to domestic poultry? I suspect it’s because we crowd them together (very stressful for the birds), raise them in confinement, feed them “scientifically balanced” feed and try to prevent them from getting sick. Now, this last statement may sound a little odd, but the immune system is sort of like a muscle; it needs frequent exposures to pathogens in order to maintain a high level of immunity. Each time you are exposed to a germ or virus, the various cells of your immune system manufacture antibodies against the invader. They then retain the memory of that invader, to help you quickly fight off subsequent infections of that bug or even similar bugs. That’s why kids tend to get colds (which are caused by viruses) more frequently than adults — the adults have developed immunity to many more viruses.
By concentrating our poultry operations into monster flocks and trying to keep them in conditions in which they never become exposed to a disease, we have created the conditions for epidemics. We shouldn’t be surprised when those epidemics happen, but unfortunately, I don’t think anyone is going to learn the necessary lessons.