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?

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  1. The only issue I’ve had is worms…round worms about six months ago and tapeworms a couple of weeks ago. I am sure the wild birds are the culprit, as well as the insects my hens eat during their free-range time. I absolutely hated worming twice in six months, but it’s the first time they’ve ever shown worms so what can you do? I, like you, am now a lot more vigilant about keeping the coop cleaned out, and I also check their stools more now, so I can see when any problems develop. I hate the idea of putting pesticides into my hens, and hate throwing away good eggs during the withdrawal period, but I hate the idea of them carrying around too many internal parasites even more.

    • HFH, This topic came up at the conference. From what the vets told us, you did the right thing. We saw some ugly slides of what can happen if this problem gets out of hand.

  2. Question….all of this sanitation sounds like what we do in the medical field to protect people with compromised immune systems. Are backyard flocks, not fed antibiotics, not overcrowded,allowed to range freely….really still so vulnerable to disease? If so, I would be very surprised. I can understand basic hygiene but this seems excessive. I should clarify that I am in human medicine, & don’t keep chickens, so I am just curious.

    • One factor in this conference was that the veterinarians who spoke primarily deal with big poultry producers who have up to 30,000 chickens in one shed. Personally, I don’t like this agricultural model for precisely the reason you hint out. That many birds in one place both compromises the flock’s immune system and sets you up for a “black swan” event where all the birds die at once because someone tracked in a communicable virus. This is my opinion–I’m not sure what the experts would say as we didn’t have a chance to have that conversation. That said, in my experience, chickens are not the most resilient species and you do have to take precautions. While you don’t have to take the extreme measures the big guys do, I stand behind the suggestions in this post–changing shoes, sanitizing equipment periodically and keeping chickens away from wild water fowl, if possible. In return for the eggs I feel a responsibility towards my small flock of four hens to keep them healthy and happy. The more birds you have the more is at risk, of course.

  3. I line the bottom of our chook house with newspaper, and roll up the top sheet and put it in the compost each day. Also keep an old spatula in the run, and pick up the droppings weekly. Use a galvanized ‘Grandpa’s Feeder’ to contain their food, so seldom see a rat.

  4. We’ve had chickens, ducks and turkeys for 17 years, and kept all three together for 11 years (rehomed the turkeys two years ago). We had a worm problem the second year but otherwise they’ve been very healthy. Fresh air, sunshine, free range with protection from a dog, insects, rodents and amphibians to eat, soil for dust baths, water to drink and bathe in, and a closed flock. When I need replacements they’re either hatched here or ordered from a hatchery so the chicks, ducklings and poults don’t bring disease with them.

    The best advice I was given when I first got chickens – they are as simple or as complicated as you want to make them. Keeping it simple and using common sense has served us well.

  5. I have been keeping chickens for three years. I find that “scooping” the “coop” like a litter box is the best way to keep the coop clean. Every morning I go out to the coop before my coffee and scoop. My hens sometimes screach if one is laying at the time but that depends on the breed.Mostly, some show up to see what the fuss is about. I have dedicated rubber garden shoes that I use in the garden and in the coop. But I’m not so fussy that I can’t use those shoes outside. I rake, add litter and try to keep the coop tidy. I have to say that my girls are clean. I rarely see poop in my nesting boxes. My hens do not free range outside their run.

  6. I heartily recommend Molly’s Herbal wormer, which can be purchased online. It works for many animals, including poultry and is a weekly herbal dose that works as a worm preventative, making the gut inhospitable to worms. As far as manure management, seems like there are plenty of great options. Deep litter has worked well for me. It took me awhile to figure out how to do it properly but now it works great.

  7. We’ve had chickens for about four years total, about 50 or more hens and roosters in all. In that time we’ve lived in three places: in one the hens had the run of the whole yard, in another they had half the yard (a fenced horse pasture–1/2 acre?), and now a fenced yard about 1/3 acre. We have never had rats or mice that I could tell. We have had occasional birds and last summer we had a squirrel. But lest winter we got an automatic door for the large coop. It was $150 or so I think, from the Ador Store online. It’s not the same as an automatic feeder. But if your coop is otherwise predator proof, and if your predators are nocturnal, then setting up an automatic door may be a solution. On, they have shown various homemade door openers over the years, and an occasional automatic feeder.

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