Bird flu in cattle stressing Northwest dairy operators

By Anna King (Northwest News Network)
April 17, 2024 10:42 p.m.

Some Northwest dairy farmers have experienced low milk prices, belly-high flooding, extreme heat, extreme cold events and fires in the past couple of years. Now, the challenge is highly pathogenic avian influenza, or bird flu, in cattle.

Northwest dairy cattle eat rations out of a feed bunk.

Northwest dairy cattle eat rations out of a feed bunk.

Karla Salp / (Credit: Washington State Department of Agriculture)


To lose production or see animals suffer would be awful, said Karen Steensma, a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia and a co-owner of Steensma Dairy & Creamery outside of Lynden, Washington.

“Even if you don’t have to slaughter as they did in the poultry industry, you’re still looking at a very stressful situation, to see these animals suffer,” Steensma said.


So far, there are nearly 30 dairy herds throughout eight states, including Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Michigan, Idaho, South Dakota, North Carolina and Ohio, that have been infected with bird flu. So far, there are no reported cases in Washington or Oregon.

Dairy in Washington state is the second most valuable commodity at about $1.68 billion farmgate annually, said Steve Seppi, executive director of the Dairy Farmers of Washington.

Dairy products in Oregon are the fourth most valuable commodity, $557 million farmgate annually, he said.

Dairies across the Northwest have decreased in numbers, for example there were 800 dairy farms in Washington in 2007, and now there are about 280. Although the number of cattle has stayed about the same, each surviving dairy has gotten bigger, Seppi said.


Biosecurity and birds

Steensma said Northwest farmers are tightening their biosecurity and trying to make their farms less attractive to birds, such as waterfowl, starlings, blackbirds, and pigeons, to avoid the disease in cattle.

Keeping birds off farms is really complicated. That is not great news for dairy operators who are trying to keep cattle safe from the bird flu that could grow worse with avian spring migration. On some farms, farmers have employed inflatable, flailing wind socks powered by fans that you might see at car dealerships.

Some farmers started using falconers, but they are very expensive, and farmers have to use them a lot of the time for it to be effective, Steensma said. Dairy operators also tried to use drones, but cattle don’t like the sound of drones because it sounds like a big swarm of biting flies, and the cows run away, she said.

Safety measures

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Federal Food and Drug Administration, and state agriculture officials maintain milk is safe to consume. Dairy farmers remove sick cows from the milking string and destroy their milk. Moreover, pasteurization in commercial milk kills bacteria and viruses in the cooking process.

Still, bird flu in cattle is just one more daunting hurdle for dairy farmers who are already on the edge.

Amber Itle, Washington’s Department of Agriculture veterinarian, said she worries about the mental health of dairy farmers under so much stress.

“Something like this, that has that uncertainty, can be enough to push someone over the edge,” Itle said. “We know there is high risk of suicide for people who go through a response, but also the producers that have these businesses.”

Steensma said: “A lot of diaries have gone out, even in the last month. It’s just setting up the way for — for pavement.”

She said these pressures will write the history of whether dairy farming can survive in the Northwest or if farms will become housing developments.