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Poultry farmers reminded to keep up avian flu safeguards at Ag Week

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Annie Ropeik/Delaware Public Media
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The University of Maryland's Jon Moyle shows poultry farmers some examples of what not to do around their chicken houses, during an Ag Week update on good biosecurity and avian flu prevention on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Delaware's annual agriculture week kicked off Monday with a focus on the Delmarva Peninsula's biggest industry: poultry.

Hundreds of farmers, vendors, regulators and experts flocked to the state fairgrounds for updates on issues like the H5N1 avian flu. There hasn't been a case in the U.S. since last spring's devastating Midwest outbreak -- but experts said farmers still need to be wary.

Jon Moyle is the University of Maryland cooperative extension's poultry agent. He noted that Delmarva chicken farmers are getting better at keeping contaminants and illnesses from getting into their poultry houses.

He pointed to a survey of several hundred farmers, in which 87 percent said they'd made changes to their biosecurity plans since last summer. And 100 percent now say they require farm visitors to wear protective clothing, compared with just 60 percent in mid-2015.

But Moyle warned farmers not to get complacent: "Don't be the weak link," he said.

He showed farmers a photo of a chicken house with its doors open and buzzards milling around outside.

"Check this bad boy out. They're walking out of the house," he said, pointing out the buzzards as the farmers in the audience laughed. "That tells me a lot of things: one, that door's been open for a long time. Two, those birds have done this before. And three, somebody didn't pick their dead birds up in the house after they moved, 'cause the buzzards wouldn't go in there."

Moyle and other presenters stressed the role that outside birds can play in spreading disease. Passerines, like sparrows and finches, have been found to be a bridge for avian flu between ducks and geese and farmed birds, like chickens and turkeys.

But backyard chicken flocks are also a big concern. Moyle said there are thousands of clocks like those all around Maryland. He said farmers need to make sure that people who've been in contact with backyard birds don't contaminate their broilers -- and that outside chickens don't either.

"I was on a farm the other day. We're driving off to leave ... and this chicken comes walking through [the farmer's] hedge from his windrow, walking out into his chicken farm," Moyle said. "He'd just got a new neighbor -- a renter. His chickens were running all over the place. You can't have your neighbors' chickens run on the farm."

The University of Delaware and other groups plan to do more studies on the threats outside birds pose to poultry farms this spring. The current avian flu outbreak is concentrated in France -- but Moyle and others warned that as birds migrate around the globe, it could resurface in the U.S. down the line.