An outbreak of a deadly and contagious poultry virus in Southern California has ranchers and fair organizers in the Mother Lode on high alert.

There have been a total of 314 confirmed cases of virulent Newcastle disease detected since May in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside and Ventura counties, as well as one recent case in Utah County, Utah.

All of the cases prior to last month were detected in backyard exhibition chickens and birds, though that changed on Dec. 15 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed the presence of the disease in a commercial flock in Riverside County.

The disease was found in two more commercial flocks in Riverside County since the start of the year. They are the first cases detected in commercial flocks since an outbreak in 2003.

Both the Mother Lode Fair and Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee announced in

the past several days that they would be cancelling their poultry shows this year under a recommendation from State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Jones.

All fairs with opening dates prior to July 1 were advised to cancel their poultry shows.

While this year’s Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee runs from May 16 to 19, the Mother Lode Fair will be held from July 4 to 7.

Ken Alstott, CEO of the Mother Lode Fair, explained that the decision to cancel the poultry show despite starting after the state’s deadline was in an effort to protect local commercial poultry flocks.

The 2017 crop and livestock report by the Tuolumne County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office listed “poultry and other livestock” as accounting for $13 million of the $21.5 million in total livestock production that year, more than cattle, sheep and lambs combined.

There were more than two dozen kids between Tuolumne County 4-H and Sonora High School’s Future Farmers of America who were planning to show turkeys, chickens, or fancy birds at the Mother Lode Fair this year, according to group leaders.

“I understand why we did it, but the thing that’s just hard for me is the seniors who have been showing poultry for so many years and aren’t going to have the opportunity to show it in possibly their last year of showing,” said Stacy Ingalls, adviser for Sonora High FFA.

Nancy Scott, all-poultry group leader for Tuolumne County 4-H, said the cancellations of the poultry shows will be a “huge change” for this year’s fair, but they have to protect the county from the spread of the disease.

Scott said she’s encouraging the exhibitors in her group to bring more eggs and potentially do presentations about poultry at the fair. Some are also planning to raise rabbits because they still have enough time to do so.

Laurie Giannini, CEO of the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee, said the decision to cancel the poultry shows was announced on Friday to give exhibitors enough notice to switch over to raising other types of animals to show.

“We just wanted to be proactive and do the right thing by our kids,” she said.

Giannini said the fair is creating additional competitions that will be held in the poultry barn involving display boards, decorated eggs, Lego chickens, and paper mache chickens.

Kim Helmbold, livestock superintendent for the Mother Lode Fair, said the decision to announce the cancellation of the poultry shows now was made because many of the exhibitors would typically be getting their project animals in the next week or two.

The fair’s small livestock department is planning to have a Jeopardy-like trivia contest called the “Avian Bowl” in place of the shows.

Last year’s small livestock auction at the fair netted a total of $48,200 for exhibitors from the sale of turkeys, chickens, rabbits and goats.

Sue Moore, president of the Tuolumne County Small Livestock Exhibitors’ Association, said the cancellation of the shows is a disappointment, but it’s important to protect the commercial poultry business in Tuolumne County that’s primarily dominated Diestel Turkey Ranch.

“That would be catastrophic,” she said of an outbreak happening in the county.

The viral disease affects the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of birds and poultry, with a death rate that can be as high as 100 percent in unvaccinated flocks. Vaccinated flocks are also susceptible to the disease, which can kill the animal before any clinical signs are shown.

Moore said the disease is so contagious that it can be spread from the clothing of a human that comes into contact with an infected bird, so many people are avoiding poultry shows in other areas.

The USDA stated that the disease is not a food safety concern and no human cases from eating poultry has ever occurred. People working with or handling a sick bird can become infected in rare instances, though symptoms are typically mild and limited to conjunctivitis or flu-like symptoms.

Businesses in the county that sell poultry products are taking precautions and advising others to as well.

Tom Hurst, store manager for Hurst Ranch in Jamestown, said he just recently heard about the outbreak and will be talking with the facility near Fresno where he gets chickens that they sell to people for backyard coops.

Hurst said he needs to determine whether the problem is confined to Southern California or will be become more widespread. He estimated the ranch sells hundreds of chickens per year.

“Usually when these things happen, they localize them in a specific area and then lift the quarantine months later,” he said. “I’m going to let it play out and talk to the facilities where I get my chickens from and get their perspective on where we go from here.”

Heidi Diestel, whose family owns the Sonora-based Diestel Turkey Ranch, said they have not seen any signs of disease in any of their turkeys but are keeping a close eye on the situation.

The ranch usually employs about 150 people, which varies depending on the season, and is considered one of the larger and more lucrative agricultural operations in the county.

Diestel said they are taking some additional steps on top of what they typically do on a daily basis to monitor the health of the turkey, such as making sure that all of their ranchers are not going to other people’s homes who have backyard flocks.

“These are the types of things that can make you lie awake at night,” she said. “I think the best thing is to help people understand how easily this can spread and taking note of not transporting or accepting poultry from other parts of the state for backyard flocks.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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