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California’s ‘Egg Basket’ Grapples with Devastating Avian Flu Outbreaks

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The resurgence of highly pathogenic avian influenza in California is wreaking havoc on poultry farms, triggering widespread devastation reminiscent of the previous year’s crisis. 

Mike Weber, owner of Sunrise Farms in Sonoma County, faced the dreaded news when his entire flock of 550,000 egg-laying hens tested positive for the disease. In compliance with government regulations, the farm had to cull all birds to prevent further spread, leaving Weber and his team grappling with the emotional toll of the loss.

The impact of the avian flu extends beyond Sunrise Farms, with nearly a dozen commercial farms in Sonoma County alone forced to euthanize over 1 million birds in recent months. Merced County, too, has suffered significant losses, intensifying the economic strain on farmers, workers, and consumers alike.

Experts attribute the spread of the virus to migratory birds like ducks and geese, which can carry the virus without showing symptoms, transmitting it to poultry farms through droppings and nasal discharges. To combat the outbreak, California poultry farms are implementing stringent biosecurity measures, including keeping flocks indoors until June.

Existential Threat to California’s Poultry Industry

california's-egg-basket-grapples-with-devastating-avian-flu-outbreaks
The resurgence of highly pathogenic avian influenza in California is wreaking havoc on poultry farms, triggering widespread devastation reminiscent of the previous year’s crisis.

The current outbreak, which began in early 2022, has led to the slaughter of nearly 82 million birds nationwide, exacerbating the volatility of egg and poultry prices. 

Maurice Pitesky, a poultry expert at the University of California, Davis, underscores the existential threat posed by the virus to the commercial poultry industry, exacerbated by climate change-induced disruptions in migratory patterns.

Despite efforts to contain the outbreak, concerns linger over the potential spread of the virus to backyard flocks, amplifying the urgency for owners to maintain strict biosecurity protocols. 

Rodrigo Gallardo, a UC Davis researcher, emphasizes the importance of vigilance among backyard chicken owners, urging them to monitor their flocks closely and seek testing for any signs of illness.

For Weber and others in the poultry industry, the road to recovery is fraught with challenges. Sunrise Farms, a family-owned business spanning generations, faces an arduous journey of rebuilding and regaining federal approval to restock its barns. 

As they navigate the aftermath of loss and devastation, Weber and his team remain resilient, hoping to revive their operations and restore California’s once-thriving poultry sector.

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