Nearly 11.8 million egg-laying hens — three of every 100 in the U.S. flock — have died in outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in less than a month, USDA data released on Tuesday show. The latest losses were 1.46 million hens in Guthrie County in central Iowa.
Laying hens account for most of the 17 million chickens, turkeys, and other domestic poultry lost to HPAI in the first U.S. outbreak of the viral disease in two years. More than 50 million birds, mostly chickens and turkeys in Iowa and Minnesota, died in an HPAI epidemic in 2014-15. Iowa is No. 1 in eggs and Minnesota is the top turkey-producing state. The 2014-15 epidemic created egg shortages in grocery stores.
USDA economists are monitoring this year’s outbreaks for possible effects on food inflation. “An ongoing outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza could contribute to poultry and egg price increases through reduced supply or decreased prices through lowered international demand for U.S. poultry products or eggs,” they said last week. Poultry prices were forecast to surge by 6.5% this year, nearly triple the usual rate.
While the HPAI outbreaks began in early February, the first among laying hens was confirmed on March 4 at an egg farm with 496,272 hens in Cecil County, Maryland, said the USDA. Since then, “high path” bird flu was identified at six other farms in Iowa, Maryland, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. All were large operations with hundreds of thousands or even millions of hens.
There were 390 million laying hens in the United States before HPAI reached egg farms, so the loss of 11.77 hens equals 3% of the national total. Iowa has lost 7.7 million hens, Wisconsin 1.76 million hens, Maryland 1.16 million hens, and South Dakota 124,000 hens in the outbreaks, as of Tuesday.
Some 1.3 turkeys have died in 28 HPAI outbreaks this year. Half of the outbreaks occurred in South Dakota. The most recent hit 28,000 turkeys on a farm in Hamilton County in central Iowa, about 60 miles north of Des Moines. Guthrie County, the site of the outbreak on an egg farm, is about 50 miles west of Des Moines.