Three years have gone by since the Iowa poultry industry was decimated by an outbreak of avian influenza.
Over 30 million laying hens and pullets and about 1.1 million turkeys died as a result of the deadly virus in 2015. But since that time, the poultry industry has not only rebuilt its inventory, but in some cases has seen growth.
“It was a big challenge to get back on our feet, to work with APHIS and USDA to handle the cleanup, and to enhance our biosecurity,” says J.T. Dean, president of Versova Management Company in Sioux Center, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Poultry Association.
“Prices were at record highs late in 2015, so the industry raced to fill the gaps, and we had record low prices in 2016 and 2017. Things are finally starting to normalize.”
One out of every six eggs produced in the U.S. comes from Iowa, making it the top egg-producing state in the country. Roughly 65 percent of those eggs go into processing.
Even with a growing industry, Dean says there are challenges ahead, most notably a push to convert the egg industry to cage-free production.
“It’s so expensive to do that, and we can’t afford to do that without being certain the market is there,” he says. “We will not change until we have a firm commitment about a market for our eggs. We have to be very careful moving forward.”
Dean says labor issues would be even more severe, as cage-free production is more labor-intensive.
“Labor will be our No. 1 challenge, if it’s not already,” he says.
Dean says egg consumption is increasing.
“Our industry does a fantastic job of converting corn and soy into a fantastic food,” he says.
Turkey numbers have grown since 2015, says Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation. Prior to the avian influenza outbreak, 9.1 million turkeys were processed in Iowa. Last year, the inventory went past 11 million.
“We were back up to previous levels within a few months,” Irwin says.
She says the growth indicates there is optimism in the turkey industry.
“We are fortunate to have two very good processors in our state,” Irwin says. “In Iowa, we are able to convert grain into feed and put those nutrients back out on the fields.”
Most concerns relate to industry infrastructure, she says. Irwin says her group and other poultry organizations continue to collaborate with Iowa State University on its new poultry farm and a new veterinary diagnostic laboratory.
She says the industry continues to improve biosecurity as well.
“We have a plan in place for a disease outbreak for the entire year, not just when we are dealing with migration,” Irwin says. “We learned a lot from 2015.”