03/31/08 — Safety begins on farm, producers say

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Safety begins on farm, producers say

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 31, 2008 1:45 PM

For Billy Hardy, a third-generation Lenoir County farmer, turkeys have been a way of life for the last 23 years, and he is not interested in that changing.

"We used to grow tobacco, but I got out to focus on turkeys (after the buyout)," he said. "And the turkeys have been really good to me."

That's why when anybody visits Hardy Cross Creek Farms in LaGrange and walks into one of his six turkey houses -- containing a total of more than 32,000 birds -- they suit up in a pair of clean coveralls and boots before dunking their feet in a tub of disinfectant.

It's how he and other poultry producers in Wayne and surrounding counties protect themselves and their flocks from the avian flu virus.

It's not, he explained, a difficult process to go through. And in a lot of ways, it's not that much different than what he and other farmers have always done -- ever since his uncle first got into the poultry business in 1977.

"Everything is a little tougher now than it was, but even back then you couldn't go into the houses without plastic boots on," he said.

And even then, they never would have dreamed of leaving one farm and walking onto another.

"It's always been that you don't go to somebody else's farm, and they don't come to yours. A lot of your diseases are tracked in on your shoes, so you just don't do it. We do everything we can to keep (anything) from spreading," he said. "To me this is normal."

In fact, he said, because he is so used to it and conscious of the security risks and needs, the only real changes he has had to make over the years were getting rid of his brooder houses, which are harder to maintain in the event of any sort of outbreak, and getting rid of the sun porches on his houses so that the birds can no longer wander outside where they can be exposed to wild fowl -- the primary carriers of the avian flu virus.

"We did away with those a few years ago because of this bird flu scare," he said. "The house is their protection."

Any other steps they take to limit disease are simply added assurances.

"I'm in this to make money," Hardy said. "This is my main source of income. I don't aim to abuse it."

And helping him make sure that things continue to run smoothly is his serviceman, assigned to him by Goldsboro Milling Co. and Butterball.

"He makes sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing," he said.

But more than being there just to look over the farmers' shoulders, the servicemen's goal is to make sure all the birds stay healthy.

"If they don't look right, if the mortality goes up any, the first thing I do is call my serviceman," Hardy said.

From there, samples from the birds, or even the birds themselves, are taken to Goldsboro Milling's diagnostic lab on Millers Chapel Road where an initial battery of tests can be run to find out what the problem might be -- before it's sent off to a state lab, either in Raleigh or Rose Hill.

"If there's something we're not sure of, we send it to the state. But this lab is the front line. A lot of our farmers are about 30 minutes from here," said Goldsboro Milling veterinarian Becky Tilley. "It's a lot more convenient for the farmer or the serviceman to bring the sample here, and that helps everybody."

And it's a relationship that's helped make Goldsboro Milling and now Butterball among the industry leaders in fighting and protecting against avian flu and other biological concerns.

"It helps out a lot," Goldsboro Milling veterinarian Eric Gonder said. "For us, it's really quite an advantage."

He explained that because the operation runs the gamut from breeding to poults (baby turkeys) to toms and hens (male and female adults), it pays to make sure everything is healthy and normal.

If not, because of the amount of exports shipped out of the Mount Olive processing plant, and because of the number of day-old poults sold to growers in neighboring states, any trade bans or restrictions could quickly harm the company's bottom line.

"We've talked about this a lot internally," Gonder said. "We're fairly sensitive to the subject."

Between the state and industry safeguards, as well as the company's, he said Goldsboro Milling's producers are about as well-protected as they can be from any sort of outbreak.

"We're going about as far as we can with bio-security without making everybody's lives miserable," Gonder said.

And for that, and all the other support Goldsboro Milling offers its 160 contract turkey producers, Hardy is thankful.

"I couldn't do this as an individual," he said.