The costliest bird flu outbreak in U.S. history that devastated chicken flocks in the Midwest earlier this year has Mississippi poultry farmers and state and federal officials preparing for the worst.
According to the president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, Mark Leggett, the flu virus is carried by wild migratory birds, such as ducks and geese.
"The virus can wipe out a chicken flock or turkeys in just a few days, so less than a week a whole farm of chickens could be dead from this," Leggett said.
The South has escaped the deadly bird flu virus that has killed off an estimated 42 million chickens and 7.5 million turkeys. However, autumn and winter months bring the possibility that migrating wild birds will carry the virus to the lower half of the U.S.
"The USDA believes the virus was brought to the Midwest by migratory water fowl via the Mississippi Flyway," Leggett said. "It killed about 10 percent of the laying hens. The number one state for eggs is Iowa, and when you lose 10 percent of your egg laying capacity, that's the reason why egg prices have gone up nationally."
The estimated economic loss to poultry farmers and those that support them is about $3.3 billion, according to some reports.
Leggett said Mississippi has six broiler companies that raise meat chickens, and about 1,800 poultry farms around the state, mainly in East Central Mississippi.
"We need to stress that this is not a virus that has had any human health effects," Leggett said. "No chicken with this virus has ever been processed. We are working really hard to make sure it doesn't get into any commercial poultry operation in Mississippi."
Taking proactive steps is essential in keeping the virus out of the chicken houses in Mississippi, Leggett said.
"Don't share equipment between one farm to another, and don't wear the clothes you wear in the chicken house to the Co-Op, or to the poultry supply store, and vice versa," Leggett said. "It's keeping as much as you can outside the house, outside, and what's inside the house, inside."
Lance Garvin, a broiler producer in Newton County, has eight chicken houses with about 200,000 chickens.
"If the virus hits a laying farm that grows eggs, it would be bad," Garvin said. "Those chickens produce the eggs that hatch, that come to us. One laying farm would be a major hit, like a chain reaction."
Garvin said if a farm is infected, any farm within a 10 mile radius would be affected.
"There are four farms within a 10 mile radius of me, and I am sitting on 200,000 chickens," Garvin said. "You can literally walk into one chicken house, and if you have stepped in bird droppings that carry the virus, or have it on your clothes, it would infect the chickens, then 200,000 would have to be destroyed, along with the chickens on the other farms."
"We have to limit who comes on the farm, and not let anyone step inside the chicken houses," he said. "Foot traffic is the key to keeping us safe with this disease."
Garvin said poultry farming has been his livelihood for more than 20 years.
"If this virus were to affect my farm, I don't know what I would do," Garvin said. "It would be pretty devastating, and I would be out of a job for awhile."
Gov. Phil Bryant, Commissioner of Agriculture Cindy Hyde-Smith, State Veterinarian Dr. Jim Watson, and officials with Mississippi State University have all been meeting to prepare for a response if the bird flu were to strike the state.