Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bird Flu .... Kill the ducks !!

Claims by our new Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, supported by avian veterinarian Dr Peter Scott that the 'free range' egg production system is responsible for the outbreak of Avian Influenza on two farms near Young in New South Wales are asbsurd.

Barnaby Joyce is following in the footsteps of his ministerial predecessors in only listening to the big end of town and Peter Scott is looking after his interests as a consultant to corporate egg producers.

There is little doubt that wild ducks may be a vector in the potential spread of Avian Influenza. As Dr Scott says 1% seem to be shedding the virus. So his solution is ..... shoot the ducks !!!!

In an interview with me by Hilary Harper on ABC 774, I ackowledged that the risk of avian flu in free range birds is an issue, but the main problem is on intensive so-called free range farms in Australia. It helps to not have a dam on the farm, to reduce the possibility of water fowl coming into contact with chickens.
How about planning a farm which does not encourage ducks?  Dams should not be permitted on free range egg farms. Or at least there should be distance limits imposed on their proximity to sheds and grazing areas.

If wild ducks are not encouraged to visit, most of them probably won't bother. For those that do, Maremma dogs with each flock will generally chase them away as they see large birds as predators.

Holding ponds need to be installed on the massive intensive farms which the industry has set up, because the potential nutrient run-off is devasting for our waterways and neighbouring properties.

What Dr Scott knows is that each hen produces around half a cubic metre of manure a year. So at a stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare that's 5000 cubic metres of chook poo per year on every hectare. That is totally unsustainable. But worse - the Australian Egg Corporation wanted to allow a stocking density of 20,000 hens per hectare, doubling the nutrient load to 10,000 cubic metres a year! What a crock.

The issue here is that intensive egg production facilities should not be classified as free range. Any farm which runs more than 1500 hens per hectare (and that is an absolute maximum) should not be classified as free range.

There are plenty of names they can use  - Cage Free, Barn Laid or whatever -  but Free Range should be left alone for those of us who meet consumer expectations.

Obviously it is cheaper to produce eggs on an intensive farm with 400,000 hens than on a free range farm with 2000 hens. If the cartons are properly labelled and customers understand what they are buying and choose the intensive system - that's fine.

But I think it's a total con for intensive farms to be allowed to label their eggs as free range when they are running huge numbers of hens, the hens are beak trimmed, they are using meat meal derived from poultry and additives to enhance yolk colour.

There's no question that intensive poultry farms are the problem and it is irresponsible for the Federal Minister for Agriculture to turn his back on family farms and push the barrow of the corporate egg industry. Of course he won't acknowledge that he was wrong - he will just plough on.

An investigation needs to be completed into how the outbreak started in Young and how it spread before there are any knee-jerk reactions from politicians or industry heavyweights. Research also needs to be conducted into the health issues associated with intensive animal husbandry and the adviseability of multiple production systems on an egg farm.

The call to kill the ducks as a solution to a problem generated by corporate greed makes as much sense as the badger cull in England ostensibly to reduce the incidence of bovine TB.

Senior lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare in the school of animal and veterinary sciences at Charles Sturt University, Doctor Rafael Freire thinks claims that free range egg production will encourage more bird flu outbreaks is a "bit of a stretch".

"There's a few studies on transmission to domestic populations of poultry in Europe and the evidence doesn't seem to suggest that that's a very big risk," he said. "You have to just think of it in the big scheme of things. It's transmitted to any bird that's flying around outside and of course there are millions.

"And we know very well that even birds in cages can be infected by bird flu because wild birds fly into the shed."

As a result of the Avian Influenza outbreaks we have beefed up the biosecurity segment of our workshop on starting a free range farm. It has always been an issue but the recent incidents have demonstrated that every farm needs to take the problem seriously.

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