Updated: Mar 20, 2019
California is experiencing an outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease, a devastating illness in chickens that has been dormant since 2003; a reminder that protecting our birds against diseases is one of the top priorities in good backyard chicken flock management. A comprehensive approach to wellness in chicken flocks includes not just biosecurity but a well-rounded diet, healthy living conditions, preventative maintenance and treatment for illnesses. None of these elements can be successful without the other, and biosecurity is no exception.
Diseases and parasites are transmitted in a lot of ways, and we don't have control over all of them. Most commonly, chickens allowed outdoor access to free-range come into contact with intermediate hosts: bugs, birds, or rodents that have been exposed and are carriers for a virus, bacteria, or parasite. However, humans, clothes, shoes, car tires, and second-hand equipment can also be a biosecurity risk to your chickens. Certain diseases are even airborne, just as human diseases are. Take Marek's disease for example. Marek's spreads via chicken dander. Infected chickens shed skin cells that can be carried not just by shoes, or bird feet, but also a gust of wind. Other airborne diseases are transmitted by mucous when an infected chicken coughs or sneezes. With so many risks, what habits should you form that will protect your chickens from diseases and other harmful biological agents?
5 Mandatory Biosecurity Rules
Quarantine New Chickens
What is quarantine? Think DITO: DISTANCE, ISOLATION, TIME, OBSERVATION. Keep new chickens separate from your existing chickens (recommended: 30 feet) in solitary confinement or isolation with other new birds for a period of up to 30 days (or as long as is reasonably humane given the quarantine quarters) to observe their behavior and health before integrating them into the existing flock. Always care for your existing chickens first, then move to the new chickens, and finally wash and disinfect all tools, clothing and shoes before the next day.
Restrict Access by Visitors
Don't feel nosy asking your guests questions to determine their risk to your flock before taking them to your yard or coop. Politely restrict access to your coop from anyone who has their own chickens, or recently worked with someone else's chickens, went to a farm or attended a poultry show. Viruses and other harmful biological agents can be passed on from their skin, clothing, shoes or truck tires. Tip: Keep your own pair of dedicated coop shoes near the back door so you're sure never to bring anything in from outside the yard on your shoes. This alleviates the need to disinfect your shoes before going into the coop each time, or clean your shoes before re-entering the house.
Keep Out Wild Birds
Birds in the yard are pretty, but they are a big biosecurity risk. Wild birds can pass external parasites to your chickens such as lice and mites, or leave their poop for your chickens to find with roundworm or other internal parasitic eggs. They can also bring in diseases from other neighborhood coops on their feet. Put the chicken food and water in the coop away from the birds, and keep the bird feeders and bird baths as far away from the coop as possible. Set up whirligigs or streamers near the coop to keep them away from your chickens specifically.
Implement Pest Control
Don't tolerate pests: they don't just annoy you, they can get your chickens very sick. Mice and rats transmit lots of diseases including parasites and some of the heavy respiratory diseases. Mosquitoes can transmit Fowl Pox, and flies pass salmonella and tapeworms among other things. Be sure to stay away from pesticides/poison for the safety of your chickens and other pets. Snap traps have proven to be the most effective pest control for mice, but they must be kept out of reach of children and animals; so try live traps, electric traps, or a humane plank trap in a bucket. (Check out our 6 Tips for a Rodent Free Coop) Fly ribbons work great in the coop along with fly traps, just don't let them sit out too long or they become ineffective and begin to smell. Our farm uses fly eliminators by placing parasitic wasps on our compost piles. Macrochelid mites and hister beetles are other helpful insects for eliminating fly populations. Growing mint around the chicken coop also deters rodents.
Disinfect All Secondhand Equipment & Clean Regularly
Though it's environmentally friendly, convenient and inexpensive to use secondhand equipment, note that wood harbors disease, and even plastic and metal tools and equipment can bear disease to your chickens. Before using a recycled coop, or reclaimed feeders, waterers, shovels, rakes, buckets, or other tools, remember to wash them thoroughly and disinfect them.
Regular Bleach is 99.9% effective for germs, but what does that mean for your flock? It cleans mold and mildew along with salmonella, E.coli, Marek's Disease, Mycoplasma, and a variety of other respiratory illnesses harmful to chickens. Dilute bleach by using a 1:10 ratio of bleach to water and use within 24 hours when cleaning the coop and equipment. To create a solution that lasts longer than a day, use a 1:4 ratio, and use within a week. Bleach, however, does not kill Coccidia. Ammonia kills Coccidia with 1:10 ratio to water, but the half life is 6 hours, so it must be used quickly! Remember not to mix or use ammonia and bleach simultaneously.
If you observe sick hens or experience death in your hens you cannot explain, see this helpful chart on who to contact in case of poultry issues by UCANR - a University of California Cooperative Extension for Poultry.