Protecting Your Backyard Flock From Disease Through Biosecurity

— Written By and last updated by Patricia Burch
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One of the tips I give my poultry producers most often is to “just watch your birds.” You can learn so much about your flock, their health, and their behaviors simply by watching them for a few minutes every day. You can quickly notice if there is a sick bird, or if you may have a bigger problem in your flock such as disease. Oftentimes, it can be expensive to find out what’s running through your flock if you have a problem, so it’s a great idea to learn some clinical signs of disease while “watching your birds” to recognize and diagnose problems in your flock.

Chickens can show different types of symptoms when they are sick. They can exhibit disease systems that correlate with their body such as: swelling or discolored combs and wattles, cloudy and draining eyes, discharge from the nasal passages, drooping wings, discolored feet, and legs, or scales and physical injuries to the feet and legs.

Other symptoms can be found in the bird’s behavior. Do they have a slow or difficult walk or gait? Are they eating normally as well as drinking plenty of water? You can also watch their activity level. You want chickens to “do chicken things.” Do you notice any coughing or sneezing in your flock? Are they having difficulty breathing, or are they panting or gasping for air? Do you notice a color, frequency, or consistency change in their feces, as well as the presence of blood or mucus?

If you suspect you have disease in your flock, have multiple birds die, or are unsure of the cause of a bird’s death, the best way to confirm what is going on is to immediately send the deceased bird to the Rollins Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory that is a part of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture in Raleigh, NC. They can be reached through their website or by phone at 919.733.3986.

Prevention is the biggest way to help keep disease out of your flock. Biosecurity means to limit your disease challenges by properly managing your farm and flock. Here are some tips on how to put a good biosecurity plan in place at your farm: good husbandry – clean water, feed, shelter, and daily management. Sanitation – cleaning and disinfecting equipment and housing. Nutrition – feeds must meet bird’s need for energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals, and will change as they grow. Size and palatability are important and clean water must be available at all times. Drinkers must provide enough space and capacity for all your birds. Shelter – should provide protection from the sun, wind, and rain as well as proper spacing. Shelters should be safe from predators as well as meet temperature requirements and be able to handle the manure load. Sanitation – cleaning debris and dust from surfaces, proper selection of equipment and materials, disinfection of equipment and pens, and proper manure treatment are key to keeping disease out of your flock.

The goal of biosecurity is to stop the spread of disease, including bringing problems in or sending problems out to your neighbors. Diseases are spread through contact or close proximity to a host or vector. A vector is any organism that transfers pathogens from one host to another. Typically, people are the most dangerous vectors due to mechanical transfer on our clothing, shoes, equipment, and vehicles. Always wash your hands after you work with your birds as well as shower and change clothes before visiting other poultry producers and before returning to your own flock. Using boot covers and a dedicated set of clothing and shoes can also cut down your disease risk. Avoid mixing species and ages of birds and buy from only trusted and clean sources. Quarantine all new birds for at least two weeks before you mix them with the rest of your flock. Limit visitors to your farm and disinfect all equipment when moving from one farm to another. Work youngest birds to oldest and always work sick birds last. Wash and sanitize equipment after you use it. Remove and dispose of mortality properly and promptly – within 24 hours by law. Isolate birds you believe to be sick. Rodent control is also very important. They are vectors for many diseases and destroy your equipment and feed. Control insects including parasites and prevent contact with wild birds.