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Michigan Dairy Farmers Resist Bird Flu Measures Amid Economic Concerns and Pandemic Fears

Some dairy farmers are resisting Michigan’s leading efforts to curb the spread of bird flu, fearing the impact of additional costs on their incomes and the rural economy.

The state’s restrictions, which include monitoring farm visitors, are bringing back unwelcome memories of COVID-19 in Martin and other small towns in central Michigan.

Michigan has recorded two of the four human cases, all among dairy workers, since the world’s first case in U.S. cattle was confirmed in late March. The state has tested more people than any of the other 12 states with confirmed cow cases, according to a Reuters survey. Testing policies vary by state.

Public health experts are concerned that the disease could lead to another pandemic. As these concerns grow, other states are observing Michigan’s proactive measures, which go beyond federal recommendations.

Interviews with Michigan producers, state health officials, researchers, and industry groups, along with preliminary data, show limited participation from dairy farmers in efforts to combat and study the virus. In some cases, calls from local health officials are ignored, research funding remains unclaimed, and workers continue milking cows without additional protective gear.

Brian DeMann, a dairy farmer from Martin, Michigan, said the outbreak and the state’s response remind him of COVID-19. He believes Michigan’s rules to contain bird flu would be more accepted if they were recommendations rather than mandates.

“Nobody knows if these measures will stop it,” said DeMann, reflecting a common sentiment among farmers. “Just like in 2020, people didn’t like being told what to do.”

This spring, many U.S. dairy owners did not follow federal recommendations to provide more protective equipment for employees, according to farmers and workers. DeMann did not invest in new protective gear for his workers because the virus’s transmission method remains unclear.

Michigan’s countryside is home to about 900 permitted dairy farms, with cows in open-air barns and feed piles covered with protective tarps weighted down by old tires.

Tim Boring, Michigan’s agriculture director, said social stigma and economic concerns around infections have deterred farmers from testing cows for bird flu in the nation’s sixth-largest milk-producing state. “There are many factors that contribute to the concerns about farms reporting positive cases,” he said. “This has been a challenge in Michigan.”

The state last reported an infected dairy herd on July 9, its 26th positive test. Five other states have also confirmed cases in the past month, with about 140 herds infected nationwide since March, according to USDA data.

Michigan is offering up to $28,000 to farms with infected herds to encourage participation in research. More than a dozen farms have expressed interest, according to the state. Additionally, the federal government provides financial assistance, with 12 of 21 herds enrolled in USDA support from Michigan.

To increase testing, USDA launched a voluntary program for U.S. farmers to test milk tanks weekly for bird flu. Six farmers in six states have enrolled one herd each, but none are from Michigan yet.

“I would like to see that in every herd,” said Zelmar Rodriguez, a Michigan State University dairy veterinarian studying infections.

Michigan’s agriculture department has up to 200 people responding to bird flu cases in poultry and cattle, coordinating with USDA on outbreak investigations. Veterinarians in other states monitor Michigan’s cases to assess transmission risks.

“Michigan is doing a good job with diagnostics and identifying where the disease is,” said Mike Martin, North Carolina’s state veterinarian.

Michigan’s outbreak in cows began after an infected Texas farm shipped cattle to Michigan in March before the virus was detected. Weeks later, a Michigan poultry farm also tested positive. Whole genome sequencing suggested the virus spread from the dairy farm to the poultry flock.

USDA now believes the virus has spread indirectly through people and vehicles moving on and off infected farms.

Chickens owned by Michigan’s largest egg producer, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, were infected due to the virus spreading from cattle, said Nancy Barr, executive director of Michigan Allied Poultry Industries. Reuters first reported this transmission link.

“It’s a new threat to us,” Barr said.

In May, Herbruck’s laid off about 400 workers after bird flu decimated flocks in Ionia County. The company plans to rehire employees as it rebuilds its flocks, a process that can take six months.

As of late June, Ionia County poultry farmers received $73.2 million in indemnity payments from the U.S. government for bird flu losses, the most of any county that had to cull infected flocks since February 2022, according to USDA data obtained by Reuters.

The layoffs have impacted Ionia, a city of about 13,000 people in central Michigan. Business owners said unemployed workers have less money to spend at a time when local stores already struggle to compete with larger retailers.

“I thought, ‘Oh great, here goes the store,'” said Jennifer Loudenbeck, owner of Downtown Vintage Resale shop.

Alex Hanulcik, who owns a fresh fruit stand, said he knows a Herbruck’s employee who left town for work in the southern U.S. after being laid off.

“I really feel for the employees,” Hanulcik said. “They were blindsided.”

Herbruck’s declined to comment.

Dairy farmers are constantly worried about their cows becoming infected, yet they are unsure how to protect them. Doug Chapin, a dairy farmer in Remus, Michigan, held meetings with employees to inform them of the virus risks. He is trying to get workers to wear protective eye gear, despite past objections due to cleaning requirements.

“You’re thinking about it all the time,” Chapin said.

Michigan plans to test dairy workers for signs of prior infections with first-in-the-nation blood testing. The state has already monitored thousands of people for bird flu symptoms using a complex contact tracing system that texts them three times daily, said Chad Shaw, health officer for the Ionia County Health Department.

However, some farmers remain reluctant to engage with local health authorities. The Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency began reaching out to farms to offer medical care for seasonal workers due to bird flu cases, but interest has been minimal.

“These guys aren’t used to us calling them,” said Rebecca Burns, the health officer.

Michigan has detected the third most infected dairy herds of any state, after Idaho and Colorado, and lost 6.5 million chickens in April alone from outbreaks on poultry farms, USDA data show.

In late April, the Biden administration began requiring lactating cows to test negative before being shipped across state lines. Michigan went further in May, requiring farms to log visitors, disinfect delivery trucks, and take other safety measures. This month, the state began requiring negative tests for non-lactating cows at fairs.

Colorado reported the nation’s fourth human case on July 3. The U.S. government awarded $176 million to Moderna to advance development of its bird flu vaccine for humans. About two dozen companies are working on a cattle vaccine, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, as roughly 140 herds nationwide have tested positive.

“Michigan has been at the forefront of providing helpful information,” Vilsack told Reuters.

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Calvin van der Spuy
Calvin van der Spuy
Calvin van der Spuy, a seasoned journalist with 8 years of experience, has dedicated his career to the relentless pursuit of the unbiased truth. At just 20 years old, Calvin's passion for journalism ignited at a young age, leading him to become a respected voice in the field. With a knack for uncovering stories that matter, Calvin's work is characterized by its integrity and commitment to factual reporting. He brings a fresh perspective to every piece, ensuring that his audience receives well-researched and accurate information. Calvin's dedication to maintaining journalistic standards makes him a valuable asset to any newsroom. In his journey, Calvin has covered a diverse range of topics, from local community issues to international affairs, always striving to shed light on the stories that need to be told. His curiosity and determination drive him to explore every angle, ensuring that no stone is left unturned. When he's not chasing leads or conducting interviews, Calvin enjoys engaging with his community and staying updated on the latest news trends. His friendly demeanor and approachable nature make him a trusted source for reliable news. Calvin van der Spuy continues to inspire with his unwavering commitment to truth and his passion for storytelling. His journey in journalism is a testament to the power of dedication and the importance of seeking the unbiased truth in today's ever-evolving media landscape.