James Baxter had 192,000 birds culled at his farm in January, following a positive AI test. For the first time, he has told his story publicly.
Scottish egg producer, James Baxter, set out the bleak reality of dealing with an AI infection to farmers attending Europe’s largest free range egg show in November.
Baxter, who farms near Stranraer on the west coast, and is also the chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), spoke publicly for the first time about losing almost 200,000 hens in 12 houses to a mandatory cull following a positive test in January.
He was one of the keynote speakers at BFREPA Live 23, held on 15 November at the Telford International Centre.
Baxter’s talk covered his experience of avian influenza, from losing an entire flock, to how he sees his business recovering, as well as the lessons learnt.
His story began in January, when Baxter and his wife had enjoyed three days away from the farm, leaving their three sons Andrew, Jonathan and David back home in charge. On his way home, Baxter’s son Andrew phoned to say there was an issue with the hens in house seven. The hens were 20 weeks old and in full lay. 79 hens were dead, and they were showing “strange lethargic behaviour” and there were eggs scattered around the shed.
“Many times, we had asked ourselves how we would know,” said Baxter. He called the vet, and reported the hens had no energy and were not eating or drinking. “I was on my way home and thinking the worst.”
Colin, his stockman, reported there had been an unusual smell in the house the previous day, which Baxter said might have been an early warning sign. “There was absolutely no doubt something was wrong.”
At this stage, he also decided to call in the services of Livetec, which produced a detailed plan in the event AI was confirmed. On the advice of Livetec, Baxter cancelled two feed lorries and an egg collection lorry that were both on their way. They never arrived on farm, and Baxter said that one decision saved the farm and Noble Foods a lot of money.
The vet assessed the hens. Lots of them were quivering and had their eyes closed. They also had red colouration on their legs. The vet was 90% sure it was AI.
“It was time to call APHA,” said Baxter. “APHA said they would be on farm at 9am the next day.”
That evening Baxter’s wife Margaret collated all information in the contingency plan. It contained every little detail about how a cull would be managed, down to the location of temporary toilets and where people would park. “The kitchen table was piled with stuff,” said Baxter. “The wheels were starting to turn.”
The phone kept ringing, but several calls stuck out. Graham Atkinson and Sarah Dean, both of Noble Foods, phoned to ask what could they do. “These calls were very important, because we were starting to feel the pressure,” said Baxter.
Livetec also played an important role. “They guided us through and kept our men busy and involved,” says Baxter. “There is nobody better on farm than the people who work there.”
Mid-morning the next day, three people from APHA arrived. Baxter and his team were warned there would be substantial paperwork and it might mean samples that could confirm the presence of AI would not be taken until the following day. However, thanks to the contingency plan put together by Livetec, they already knew where everything would go. “One hour later, the vet was ready to take the samples.”
This was valuable, because speed is important for the welfare of the hens and also for the valuation of the hens still alive, which determine how much compensation is received.
Addressing producers in the audience, Baxter reflected on the speed with which everything on his farm had been upended, thanks to suspicion of AI. “Your whole life changes,” he said. “APHA takes over.”
Samples were collected from dead and dying birds, and a courier took them. off to Weybridge. “We waited for the inevitable results,” said Baxter.
Baxter said Mark Williams of the BEIC, told everybody at last year’s BFREPA conference that you must behave at all times as if the virus is already on your farm and you need to keep it out of the shed. “That is policy we used.”
He described the biosecurity protocols on the farm. There are three levels of biosecurity before anybody can access the hens. The first is a foot dip. After that there is a step over barrier where clothes are changed. Then in order to access the hens there is a further step over barrier.
Together with the APHA staff, Baxter said he tried to work out how house seven could be vulnerable. He observed pigeons sitting on the chimney of house seven and none of the other houses. “That house is covered in solar panels and they only wanted to sit on that roof,” he said. A few days before, the farm had had two inches of snow. “This would have landed on chimney lid and then melted and dripped viral soup via the fan onto the hens two metres under the chimney,” said Baxter. “We 100% believe that’s how AI got onto our farm.”
Three days in from the initial call to the vet, Baxter still had to manage a farm where 11 other sheds were still producing eggs flat out. So, the packing continued, while mortality in house seven continued to rise.
Baxter said at this point, on day three, the hens in house seven had gone almost completely silent. The APHA vet arrived and organised licences for movements and health checked other 11 sheds, which were completely fine. “We did the final count ready for culling if we had AI. At 4.20pm the phone rang, and confirmed AI. All 12 sheds were to be culled.”
“We had a lot of calls from farming people, which was really appreciated,” said Baxter. “We also made the front page of local paper,” which he noted, was not appreciated in the same way. “We were not getting a lot of sleep now.”
The following day, security men turned up, wearing full camo kit, including stab vests. “We were the most secure farm in area.” Baxter said he didn’t really appreciate the value of having a security crew at the farm’s entrance points, until a group of ramblers turned up insisting they had the right to walk through the farm. They were promptly turned away.
On day four at 2pm the culling began. A company from the Netherlands called Vaneck arrived with lorry loads of carbon dioxide. They began gassing the birds. Fortunately, the farm’s sheds were new and airtight. “We shut the chimney vents as tight we we could. For a site our size, the process was very quick,” said Baxter. “Within six minutes, 90% of the hens were dead,” and within 30 minutes, the process was complete.
“The hens were not stressed by it and it was very efficient and easy,” he said.
The following day, carcase pickers arrived, and 1.5 million eggs went to go with the hens for rendering. Two doctors also arrived on the site, in order to assess the staff, none of whom were unwell.
After that, the cleaning began. All the sheds underwent primary cleaning and disinfection, and all the fibre trays were disposed of. “Anything we could not pressure wash or disinfect had to be burned,” he said.
Inside of a fortnight, everything had changed on the farm. “We had gone from flat-out to nothing. And all we had was two pieces of paperwork and an IOU from the government. I told staff to have a week off so we could come to terms with what had happened.” After everything was done that could be done, the last people to leave were the security men. On day 20, the Scottish government paid compensation for all the culled hens into Baxter’s bank account.
The farm must be empty of poultry for a year, meaning Baxter can restock on 8 February 2024. He said he has been using the time to upgrade lighting and lay new concrete.
Looking back, he said the shock of becoming an IP was “overwhelming”, but having contingency planning in place had lessened the burden, both practically and for everybody’s mental wellbeing. “All the practical decisions were made in peacetime,” he said. It meant everyone could move quickly, which was important for the hens’ welfare and for compensation purposes. “Dead hens don’t get compensated for”.
Today, new pullets are in rear, ready for February. “Millions of pigeon spikes” are being installed on the shed roofs and an automatic vehicle disinfection system is being put in. “We are doing the best we can,” he concluded.