For many of us backyard chicken enthusiasts, biosecurity is a big word that hints of government intrusion, regulatory oversight, and a host of issues we’d rather not have to deal with. However, biosecurity is something we should all be aware of if we want to protect our flock. First of all, a little background on why we can safely ignore the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). The USDA’s primary concern is to keep the food supply safe for consumers. The only concern they have with respect to the health, welfare, and happiness of your flock is whether or not your chickens are going to make someone sick. They don’t care if your chickens are happy or healthy, only that they don’t make us unhappy or unhealthy. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at some common sense biosecurity measures we can employ to protect our flock – even if they USDA doesn’t really care about them like we do.
The first thing you should do is establish a quarantine area that is separate from your main flock. For backyard flocks, this may be in the garage or basement of your house. For larger yards, a 100 foot separation should be a minimum distance. And this means, your quarantine is not located where wandering free-rangers can come take a peek and see what’s going on behind the fence. Make sure that you have adequate separation that cannot be compromised by nosy chickens.
So who should you quarantine?
- Every new bird coming in to your flock no matter how reputable the source.
- Every returning bird that has been to a show, the fair, the vet, or a sightseeing road trip.
- Any bird with signs of ADR. ADR is a serious medical term we should all be familiar with. It stands for “Ain’t doin’ right.” If a bird is off her feed, acting funny, or out of the norm, don’t hesitate to pop her in your quarantine pen for while.
How long should you quarantine? Six weeks would be ideal, but for most of us, we don’t have the luxury of time or space. Two weeks is a good minimum with longer being better. And that’s two straight weeks straight of normal behavior, not two weeks of “ready to keel over” followed by three days of “looking a lot better.”
So what do you look for while your birds are in quarantine? Any change in eye color, luster of the feathers, going off of feed, lethargy, or a host of other ADR symptoms. Most of the birds we quarantine will be perfectly fine, but all it takes is one sick bird that looks fine at first to pass a devastating infection to the whole flock if we are lax in our discipline.
Think of these as the normal actions you would take when preparing food for your family to eat. This means washing your hands before and after handling your chickens. Every time. And this doesn’t mean washing your hands like a junior high boy who wets the tips of his fingers and thinks he’s clean. Use soap and warm water and wash for a full 60 seconds. You don’t have a watch? Sing through the ABC song three times and it will take you about a minute. You should wash your hands:
- Before you enter your chicken yard.
- When you come out of your chicken yard.
- Before and after visiting your quarantine area.
- After handling critters other than your chickens.
- When you get back from the mill or store after picking up feed (after all, EVERYONE shops there for feed, no matter how healthy their chickens are, so be aware that even though you can’t see folks with sick chickens, they can leave “gifts” behind long after they’re gone)
And the same goes for anyone else handling your chickens or just coming over to visit.
For that matter, it’s probably best not to have folks come over to visit your chickens. Let them admire them from a distance. If you are selling or swapping chickens, don’t let your customers wander around in your pen or among your chickens. If they are in the market for chickens, they have likely been visiting other flocks and there is no telling what might be on the bottoms of their shoes. Better for you to bring the chickens to them using a dog carrier (or cat carrier for those bantams) or your quarantine pen if you have more than one. Besides, you want to leave them in the quarantine pen for a couple weeks anyway, if they decide not to take any.
“Standard precautions” in the health care and manufacturing fields often involve wearing personal protective equipment like gloves, masks, eye protection and lab coats, overalls, or jump suit. This may seem a little extreme for keeping chickens, but it never hurts to keep your “chicken clothes” separate from the rest of your wardrobe. This may mean you keep a pair of boot and coveralls just for working in the chicken yard or it may be as simple as not wearing your gardening gloves when working on the chicken pen. If that’s too much trouble, save those plastic supermarket bags to slip over your boots and throw them away when you’re done.
If you are going to sell or trade often, then you will want to do a number of things that are just good, plain business sense:
- Keep a record with full name, address, phone, and e-mail of all your customers. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a spiral notebook or ledger book works fine. That way you can contact them immediately with any concerns that you might have if something does happen. Not only will your records help you identify the potential source of any infections, it will also let you know who needs to be alerted to watch for signs in their flock. This is a courtesy for both them and all your other customers.
- Keep a “sale pen” or some other area to display birds that you have for people to buy separate from your flock. That way if buyers do inadvertently infect your chickens with some nasty bug that is going around, you won’t lose the whole flock.
- Get your flock tested and NPIP (National Poultry Improvement Plan) certified. This sounds like overkill, but it doesn’t cost that much, you can take if off your taxes as a business expense, and it shows that you care enough to follow the rules.
- On the flip side, don’t buy from those who are not NPIP. Does NPIP guarantee a healthy flock? No, but it does mean that the flock owner is conscientious enough to seek NPIP.
- These measures will help you prevent an outbreak and if you do find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having an outbreak, you will have a plan for containing it.
One enthusiast said that he never takes chickens that have been to shows back to his flock. If the purpose of a competition is to show off your best, you want to keep it for breeding. This is where your quarantine area can literally be a lifesaver.
When you take your birds to shows, you should always assume that no one cares for your chickens as much as you do. And you’ll most likely be right. That means, if you can, you should place your birds side by side or back to back with people you know who follow the same biosecurity measures you do. Make sure you take your own food, water, and bedding. These are things that your birds are used to and will keep them happier and likely show better. During shows, follow the same standard precautions you follow in your yard. Keep that hand sanitizer handy and be careful what you touch.
These measures, along with a healthy dose of common sense, will help protect your flock from common diseases. If it sounds like too much trouble, it’s still a lot easier than trying to replace a whole flock that succumbed to a preventable infection.