- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Wyatt Orr didn’t eat a lot of chicken before Iowa’s avian influenza outbreak.

Maybe that’s because the 18-year-old knows what chickens go through before they hit grocery store shelves. Or maybe it’s because he’s been raising them since he was 10.

“I’m not opposed. I’m just around them so much, it’s not something I like to do,” Orr said. “They’re all my friends.”

Orr, who lives in Mediapolis, has been showing birds for seven years at the Des Moines County Fair. This would have been his eighth year, but the poultry exhibition at the fair has been canceled due to the flu.

Gov. Terry Branstad declared a state of emergency in mid-April after the H5N2 virus struck northern Iowa, the nation’s leading state in egg production. About 30 million hens have been euthanized to contain the virus, which has contributed to the death of 48 million chickens and turkeys. The cost of eggs in June was more than double the cost in May.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship announced May 21 that poultry exhibitions in the state would be canceled.

Any chance at a moment in the spotlight was snatched from Orr’s Rhode Island red bantams, the breed he planned to show this week.

“I was pretty heartbroken,” Orr said. “It was going to be my last year showing birds, and I wanted to save my best for last.”

Orr will attend Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill., next month, meaning this year’s fair would have been his last 4-H poultry exhibition. His Rhode Island red bantams are pets. They are the only birds he kept after selling nearly a thousand to friends and schools in preparation for his departure for college.

Though his family raises livestock, corn and soybeans, Orr was the only family member to raise chickens, a trade he learned from his grandfather.

“My dad and grandfather had chickens before, but never to the extent that I did,” he said.

At first, he raised just enough birds for the fair, but once he started selling the extras, he had a rapidly growing business on his hands. He’s sold about 3,000 birds since the fourth grade. He prides himself on having sold birds in every Iowa county.

“It just happened,” Orr said.

When the avian flu outbreak hit, Orr thought it might be the demise of his poultry production. The Iowa Department of Agriculture put a halt on not only exhibitions at the fair, but also on swap meets and livestock auctions.

This was concerning for Orr, considering he had thousands of dollars already invested in feed, eggs and live birds.

It turned out to be a blessing.

“I chickened out, ironically enough,” Orr said. “At first when I heard the news, I was nervous. I couldn’t swap eggs, and I already had a lot of feed, which was expensive. I started selling my birds and so many people wanted them, I had to make a Facebook page.”

The price of his chickens increased from a usual $8 to $10 per bird to $12 to $15 per bird, due to the demand.

His flocks were safe from the deadly virus. He added: “I kept doing what I was doing, I just had to be more careful.”

As of Monday, no new reports of avian influenza have been reported in the state for more than a month. Once barns with outbreaks have been cleaned and disinfected, they must wait 21 days before they can restock.

As for Orr, he will show rabbits at the fair instead.

He sat in his home’s garage with his hen in his lap and gave it an affectionate pat. The bird tolerated it for a few minutes before jumping off Orr’s knee.

“Looking back, raising the birds was a lot of fun, but also a lot of stress,” Orr said. “I love my birds to death, but I don’t know if I would do it again.”

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(c)2015 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)

Visit The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa) at www.thehawkeye.com

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