Biosecurity for Chickens: The First Line Of Defense
Why is Biosecurity Important?
Reading Time: 5 minutes
One of the biggest challenges of the organic poultry farmer is handling illness in the flock. How do you treat it? Do you break from the organic path to use commercial medications? Do you try less effective organic solutions? Do you let them ride it out? What of the welfare of your hens?
What if I told you that you could avoid the problem altogether by practicing biosecurity for chickens?
Biosecurity for chickens is a concept leveraged by farmers in the know. What do they know? They know how to keep diseases away from their birds. They do so by following a few farm rules, adding a couple of good habits to their routine, and understanding some basic concepts.
It’s unreasonable to expect someone to keep birds healthy when they’ve been given sick birds from the start. Avoid starting behind the 8-ball by buying your day-olds or juvenile birds from National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) participating flocks and hatcheries. The NPIP is a program run in conjunction with the US Department of Agriculture and the US Poultry & Egg Association. NPIP participants follow strict biosecurity guidelines and monitor their flocks for diseases through regular testing, so you know you’re buying clean birds.
Diseases don’t just teleport into your flock; they have to physically enter your farm and make their way to your birds. Different pathways diseases can use to get to your flock are collectively known as “vectors.” The most common vectors are new birds, pests, dirty equipment, and you.
When you bring new birds onto the farm, isolate them from the rest of your birds. Note I said Isolate, not segregate. Keeping them in a different pen in the same barn doesn’t count. Please keep them in a separate barn as far from your other birds as possible. Keep them isolated for 14 days and watch for signs of illness.
Chicken coops are notoriously attractive to rats and mice. Remove junk and brush from around your barns and keep the grass short. Rodents don’t like moving around in the open, and removing their hiding places makes your coops uninviting. The less they have to hide in, the less they’ll appreciate your farm. Rodents also love spilled and spoiled feed. Tend to your feeders and fix problems before rodents come knocking.
Discourage wild birds from hanging out on your farm. Discourage wild birds from perching and nesting on the farm by blocking eves and other surfaces they like to roost or nest on. You can also add spike deterrents to discourage them from perching. Ditch the wild bird feeders too. Allowing your chickens to feast upon the dropped seeds from a wild bird feeder is begging for new diseases and chicken mites.
Don’t underestimate the ability of bugs. They may be small, but they are a disease vector. Watch your coops for ants, beetles, and the worst of them all; flies. All of these bugs can bring diseases into your barn if left unchecked. Correct litter and water dispenser management go a long way to prevent flies and other insects from moving in.
My poultry professor had a favorite catchphrase; “You can’t clean dirt.” It’s true, so when you’re cleaning surfaces, remember that the first step is to wash all the foreign material off. Scrub that surface with a bristle brush along with some soap and water. Rinse, and let dry.
Many people misunderstand how disinfectants work. Disinfectants need time to do what they do. This time is known as “contact time,” or simply; how long it needs to sit on the surface to do its job. This contact time will allow the chemical to break down any biological material it contacts, such as bacteria and viruses. In the world of commercial poultry, the broad-spectrum disinfectant Vircon-S ® is a popular choice. If you don’t have any on hand, a bleach solution is an excellent second choice.
Did you buy or borrow used equipment? Was your new equipment housed in a warehouse that had wild birds in it? Did other chicken keepers handle the equipment at the store? Who knows, but you should know that you need to clean your new gear when you bring it home. Clean any tools, cages, or nest boxes before getting them near the flock.
You and any other human that walks into your poultry coop have the opportunity to infect your birds. We don’t mean to do it, but boots are adept at picking up pathogens from the outside environment and transporting it into our flocks. There are a few basic rules that pertain to human traffic.
It’s hard for most small flocks to do this, but if you’re serious about keeping your birds healthy, don’t allow visitors. The only people that should be entering the coop are the people that have to. Don’t give coop tours in person; YouTube it instead!
It’s good practice to keep a set of clothes just for the coop. The point is to have a designated outfit that doesn’t leave the farm, reducing the likelihood of bringing disease in on your clothing from off the farm. Also, keep a pair of dedicated coop boots. Tall rubber boots are easy to clean and relatively cheap, but a dedicated pair of work boots will do the trick too.
To reduce the likelihood of tracking disease into the coop, leave a spray bottle of disinfectant at the door. It’s good hygiene practice to wash off your boots to remove any dirt, then disinfect them before entering the coop. Most farms have pans of disinfectant they step into before entering the barn, but I find that a spray bottle is more convenient for the average backyard farmer.
The route you take during your chores matters too. Allow me to offer you a practical scenario; you have three barns. Barn one is your regular laying flock, barn two has some adult birds you just brought onto the farm and are in isolation, and barn three has your new day-old chicks from the hatchery. Who do you feed first?
The proper route would be to visit your day-old chicks first, layers second, and the birds in isolation last. The theory is; your day-old chicks (assuming you bought them from a clean flock) should be the least likely to be sick and the most vulnerable to illness. Your layer flock would be the next stop. The Isolation flock should be presumed to be ill until proven healthy. Hence it should be the last flock to be visited. If you were to reverse the pathing, you’d risk dragging infection from the isolation flock through your entire farm.
None of any of this matters if you’re not holding up your end of the deal. Your birds still need the basics like clean food and water, good shelter, safety from predators, and everything else that comes with keeping chickens healthy and happy. They need you to keep a wary eye on them too. Watching for signs of illness and identifying sick chickens is paramount. If you see disease in your flock, the sooner you identify it and deal with it, the better. If you need help, you can call the USDA APHIS bird hotline at 1-866-536-7593. The hotline will get you in touch with professionals that can advise you.
With this basic knowledge, you can draw up a biosecurity plan that works for you. If you’d like to learn more about biosecurity for chickens, check out the USDA APHIS’s Defend The Flock campaign page at www.aphis.usda.org for more information and tips on how to keep your birds safe.
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.