Iowa State University cancels classes at campus farm with rare chickens to avert bird flu risk

To protect a flock of rare chickens from the possibility of getting the bird flu, Iowa State University said Monday it has canceled classes for about 500 students at its poultry teaching and research farm.

Instead professors will rely on videos to teach the students about poultry nutrition, reproduction, anatomy and physiology.

The Department of Animal Science is minimizing traffic to the poultry farm on 11 acres 3 miles south of the main Iowa State campus in Ames amid concern the bird flu virus may return when wild birds, which carry the disease, start migrating this fall.

Six courses a year are typically taught at the farm, established in 1963. The farm has meat chickens and egg layers in addition to turkeys and other birds.

Some of the chickens have the world's oldest inbred research genetic lines, with the oldest dating back to 1925. Some originate from the 1950s, with genetics from Egypt and Spain.

Jodi Sterle, an animal science professor and the department's teaching section leader, said the decision to cancel classes can become a teaching opportunity.

"This is the industry and this is the situation we face," she said. "We'll use this issue to examine foreign animal diseases, biosecurity, traffic and people flow in facilities, why we house animals in buildings, animal welfare and economics."

The bird flu this spring infected 77 Iowa poultry operations resulting in the death of 34 million birds including 22 commercial egg flocks and 35 turkey flocks.

The importance of the rare chickens to research is that the genetic makeup differs from what's used in commercial production today, said Susan Lamont, the animal science professor in charge of genetics research. She said that makes them a powerful tool for researchers studying growth traits, skeletal strength, disease resistance and biodiversity.

As a precaution, Lamont has sent some chickens to a separate site maintained by the College of Veterinary Medicine which has a higher level of biosecurity.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation collected 300 semen samples from roosters at the university to store in a facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, where genetic resources of animals and crops deemed important to U.S. agriculture are frozen and preserved.