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Dakota Provisions survives 2015 avian flu impact: Lessons learned will lead to more caution

HURON – Although the avian influenza cost Dakota Provisions 12 percent of its total production this year, it was able to keep its workforce and customers and will be back to full strength in turkeys by the end of October.

“Twelve percent of your production is pretty serious; it’s impactful, no question,” said president and chief executive officer Ken Rutledge.

Eleven Hutterite colonies in South Dakota, Minnesota and North Dakota suffered losses to bird flu.

Rutledge said 540,000 turkeys had to be euthanized. The first case of avian influenza to strike a farm supplying birds to Dakota Provisions happened April 1.

“We’ve repopulated all of the colonies; they all have birds on their farms,” he said.

The first birds from those colonies will start coming into the plant east of Huron in the latter part of October.

“So from April through October we lost 540,000 head,” Rutledge said. “So we have suffered.”

But the good news comes in terms of the Dakota Provisions employee and customer bases.

The company guaranteed workers their paychecks would reflect a 36-hour work week whether they worked that many hour or not “because we wanted to keep our employees and we’ve kept them,” Rutledge said.

Dakota Provisions was also able to satisfy all of its customers with no cutbacks. “So we kept the customers happy,” he said.

Minnesota and Iowa farms were hit even harder by the bird flu this year, and some processing plants have had to lay off em-ployees.

In April, three groups of birds, at different ages, had to be destroyed. There was a complete cleanup, disinfecting process and testing.

He acknowledge there’s a fear that when the birds return to the area this fall on their way south for the winter that the virus could infect turkeys again.

“The fall migration is probably less risky because they move more quickly than they do in the spring. They don’t stick around,” he said.

“We’re hoping we’ll miss it, but the possibility always exists,” Rutledge said of a return of the virus.

The birds are in a hurry to go south in the fall to escape the cold weather.

But the northern migration in the spring is slower because the birds often have to wait on open water until snow and frozen lakes thaw.

The farms are also much better prepared. Building designs have undergone changes, vents have been closed, facilities have been sanitized and traffic moving in and out has been reduced.

Trucks hauling live birds and finished product go through a wash process as a precaution as they exit the turkey plant.

“We’re doing a lot of things to try to prevent the introduction” of avian influenza, he said.

For the complete article see the 08-28-2015 issue.

Full article at the Daily Plainsman.

Ken Rutledge

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