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Willmar lab to expand in response to bird flu

WILLMAR -- Ground will be broken next week on an $8.5 million expansion and renovation of the Minnesota poultry testing lab in Willmar. When completed next fall, the new facility will provide a stronger defense against future outbreaks of the avi...

poultry testing lab
The poultry testing lab in Willmar will undergo an $8.5 million project. (CAROLYN | LANGE)

WILLMAR - Ground will be broken next week on an $8.5 million expansion and renovation of the Minnesota poultry testing lab in Willmar.

When completed next fall, the new facility will provide a stronger defense against future outbreaks of the avian influenza that resulted in the loss of 9 million birds this year in Minnesota

A ground-breaking ceremony for the lab expansion will be held Monday afternoon at the Willmar Community and Activity Center.

The existing 3,665-square-foot lab, which is located on North Business Highway 71, was put to the test this year when a massive outbreak of bird flu hit the state’s poultry industry.

The bird flu was confirmed at 108 sites in Minnesota, including 40 farms in Kandiyohi County.

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Operated by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the 20-year-old lab runs tests on garden variety poultry diseases but it has never been equipped to test for the highly pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza. As a result, during the peak of the bird flu outbreak this summer, couriers drove to the University of Minnesota’s diagnostic lab in St. Paul twice a day to get samples tested and some samples were even sent out of state to manage the overload of work.

That extra step slowed down the diagnostic process and delayed the response to the bird flu, said Dr. Dale Lauer, who supervises the Willmar lab.

Not having the full testing capability in the heart of the state’s turkey farming industry was seen as a significant hindrance to responding to the bird flu and the Legislature approved money for the expansion in the bonding bill.

When the 8,235-square-foot addition is completed next fall, the lab will be able to process samples for H5N2, as well as other poultry diseases.

“It will put the ability to test for the disease in a timely manner closer to where the disease is,” Lauer said.

A new, biosecure entryway will also be constructed to provide added protection when producers bring daily samples to the lab, he said.

“I think this is just great for the poultry industry in the state,” Lauer said.

“It’s about the industry and to be able to respond to these devastating diseases that we once thought wouldn’t appear,” he said.

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Because the project involves demolition of walls and renovating existing space, the lab will be temporarily relocated off-site during the entire construction process.

Lauer said an interim site for the lab has been identified but will not be announced publicly until a lease has been signed.

Construction is expected to begin the first week of January and could be completed in August.

Lauer said technicians will need to be prepared and new equipment calibrated and accredited before the lab will be operational.

He speculated that could be sometime in October.

Related Topics: FOODAGRICULTURE
Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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