The largest, most-costly animal disease response thus far in U.S. history was the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in 2015. In Minnesota alone, 109 premises with more than 9 million birds, mostly turkeys, were infected. To take care of that outbreak in the United States, over $1 billion was spent in indemnity and disease control.
Now, the epicenter of hog depopulation and disposal due to COVID-19 disruptions in the pork supply chain, Minnesota state animal health officials, private parties and pork producers have had to come together to build their own disaster response plans.
"Remember, this is not a disease situation for our livestock. The usual agencies that respond to a disease, whether it's locally with the Board of Animal Health all the way up to the USDA veterinary services, all of the agencies aren't sure how to address this, but more importantly, where's the money going to come from to help out?" says Beth Thompson, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
Thompson, who spoke during a recent National Pork Board COVID-19 webinar, says fortunately Minnesota legislators quickly responded, giving funding to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture but she says that money is going to run out fairly quickly. Though MDA received the funding, staff from both the BAH and MDA make up the Incident Management Team. The state is using that funding to run two grind-and-compost sites, one in Nobles County and one in Le Sueur County. Thompson says when done correctly, the process is quite efficient.
"Back during highly pathogenic avian influenza, I'd say 95% plus of the poultry carcasses, that we had as a result of that disease, were disposed of via composting," Thompson says.
For the Nobles site, a state contractor that was involved in the HPAI event is running all the grinding and composting, while Le Sueur is being handled by a private party, as a sub-contractor. The sites were selected not only for their availability, but also for their positions away from large population centers, adequate roads around the locations and enough land for both grinding and composting to occur. Before setting up those sites, it was also critical to get in contact with county commissioners, township boards, local law enforcement and neighbors.
As far as depopulation work that is able to be completed at the sites, Thompson says one large grinder can grind up to 3,000 hogs per day and it takes around eight to 10 people working to keep up with all the equipment running in addition to the grinder, such as front-end loaders, dump trucks and skid steers.
Without clear guidance from federal agencies, including USDA, FEMA and others, Thompson says the state has been refining its standard operating procedures each day as it evaluates disposal needs. She hopes other states, that may only be a week or two behind in needing to depopulate, may be able to utilize the protocols Minnesota has developed, but acknowledges it is a work in progress.
"We don't have a regional plan in place. For example, if this were African swine fever or some other disease, would it be a good option for all of us here in the Midwest to be talking through some regionalization?" Thompson says. "In the state of Minnesota, our state agencies are working together on what's going on immediately, or right now, within the state. The missing piece though is funding and that's integral to getting the work done."