Practical Backyard Chicken Biosecurity

Photo: Amanda Goodpaster.

Photo: Amanda Goodpaster.

Above you’ll see me and fellow chicken enthusiast Roberta Kato modeling something like what you’d need to wear to go into those commercial chicken farm sheds: Tyvek suit, plastic booties and hair net (you’d also need a mask). We put this on for the necropsy session at the two day poultry seminar we both attended. Dr. Rodrigo Gallardo, a poultry veterinarian at UC Davis and one of the seminar’s presenters, noted that in his daily rounds, in addition to this type of suit, he has to take up to seven showers a day.

Obviously, these measures aren’t practical or necessary to keep healthy chickens in our backyards. While not exactly casual about our own coop’s biosecurity, I did come away from the seminar with some ideas on how I can improve my flock’s biosecurity and prevent problems before they happen.

Dedicated clothing
Right now I’ve got a pair of flip flops I use to go into the coop to let the chickens into the run in the morning and shut them up at night. This is a bit dumb. A pair of rubber boots or, at least, closed-toed rubber garden shoes would be a better option. Many poultry diseases are spread on the ground. I’d be smart to not use these dedicated coop shoes for anything else. For instance, walking under the wild bird feeder in the front yard. And I’d be smart to dedicate a shirt and pair of pants for times I’ve got to handle one of our birds.

Controling flies and rodents
I’ll let you in on a secret: Los Angeles is a city of rats and mice, and I’m not talking about the entertainment business. Rodents have been disease vectors in a number of incidents involving large scale producers. I know I’ve got a rodent problem in our backyard that I’ve avoided dealing with. I’m looking into treadle feeders for the chickens (which will be the subject of another blog post). I do keep the feed in a rodent proof garbage can. As for the flies, when I got back from the conference I cleaned out the coop and put down some more bedding.

Keeping things clean
Accumulated poop and feather dander greatly increase the chances of disease. I keep the coop clean, but I’ve decided to increase the times I change out the litter.

Trips to the feed store
The place I get my feed from is, to put it charitably, dirty. They also sell chickens, and pet birds that don’t look healthy. Unfortunately, it’s the only place that carries the feed I like (Modesto Milling). From what I learned at the conference, you need to be careful about trips to the feed store. I should change clothes, put them in the wash and take a shower before getting anywhere near my hens after a trip to buy supplies. The same precautions should be taken after visiting a farm, a friend’s coop or a poultry show. Better safe than sorry.

Preventing contact with wild birds
Due to the flighty temperament of my hens and my desire to protect our garden from marauding chickens, I keep our hens in an enclosed run during the day. I rarely see any wild birds in the run, but there are some improvements I could make to keep wild birds out entirely. Obviously, if you free range your hens you can’t keep them away from wild birds, but it was suggested at the conference not to keep chickens near ponds or even small water features since wild ducks are carriers of avian influenza. I’ve never seen a duck land in our yard, but if you have a pool or water feature this could be something to think about.

Some other suggestions from Dr. Gallardo:

  • Buy from hatcheries that are National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) certified. NPIP hatcheries immunize for Mareks disease.
  • Separate sick birds immediately. Quarantine new birds for 30 days.
  • Prevent mosquitoes by draining standing water. Mosquitoes can spread fowl pox and other diseases.
  • Periodically scrub and sanitize the coop and equipment. You should dry clean, i.e. brush off organic matter before sanitizing. Bleach is inactivated by organic material.
  • Consider painting interior coop surfaces to make them easier to clean.
  • Don’t share garden tools or poultry equipment with other poultry keepers.

Gallardo suggested being practical not perfect. The goal is to reduce risk while accepting you’re never going to eliminate diseases. He also noted that educational activities such as 4-H are worth the risk. Kelly and I get requests to bring our chickens to public events. We’ve decided that we don’t want to stress our flock and potentially get them sick for the sake of a book signing. Decisions about risk management are never clear cut or easy.

Have you had poultry disease problems? How did you change your biosecurity?

I’ve Flown the Coop


While Kelly restores our breakfast nook, I’m at a two day poultry seminar sponsored by the California Department of Food & Agriculture. The point of my attendance is to learn good husbandry practices and share them with you, our dear readers. I’ll break down the voluminous information into a series of future blog posts. The takeaways from yesterday’s session:

  • Buy chickens that have been vaccinated for Marek’s disease. This is the most common problem with backyard chickens and it’s entirely preventable.
  • If you have a sick or dead chicken and live in California, send it to the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory System (CAHHFS) for a free necropsy. Here’s a list of the labs and their contact information. Call for instructions and don’t freeze the carcass. If you bring a sick chicken they will euthanize it for you.
  • UC Cooperative Extension has a

new backyard poultry website


Thanks to Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms for tipping me off to this class.

How do I keep squirrels and rats from eating my grapes?

My beautiful picture

I’m running an experiment this summer on our grape arbor. Using our CritterCam, I’ve photographed both squirrels and rats munching on grapes. I decided to see if either paper bags or plastic clamshell containers would deter the daily and nightly mammalian fruit buffet. Preliminary results:

  • Clamshells don’t work. The fruit fermented, and not in a nice way.
  • Paper bags seem to work, but probably only because I left a lot of the fruit exposed in the hopes that they would eat that first and leave the bagged fruit alone. It’s also hard to tell when the fruit is ripe when it’s in a paper bag.

I’m thinking the long term answer is to make custom fruit cages out of hardware cloth. If the grapes were neatly tended on a vine it would be much easier to net them. Netting is not an option on our arbor.

Look carefully in this image and you can see one of the “perps” reaching out to grab a tasty grape:

My beautiful picture

Have you tackled the mammalian grape buffet issue? How did you deal with it?

So Cal Alert: Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer


Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer, from UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab

Seems the greater LA area is ground zero for the introduction of yet another exotic beetle which is killing our our beautiful native oaks and sycamores, our landscape trees, even our beloved avocado trees.

The good news is that the fungal disease propagated by the beetle can be treated if detected early. You’ll need the services of a professional arborist, but the cost of treatment will likely be less than the cost of tearing out a mature tree.

Look at this link to UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab. Here they have several PDFs on identifying and treating the disease. They also have a map showing the spread of the disease. Of course, these are only reported infections–it could be much more widely spread.

(Note: a separate invasion was recently detected in the commercial avocado groves of San Diego county, so folks further south should be on alert too.)

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