When it comes to raising poultry for food, cleanliness is key for human and animal safety, according to state agriculture officials who deal in biosecurity.
It sounds a bit like something best left to secret scientific military establishments, but when it comes to chickens, “biosecurity” refers to measures taken to prevent the introduction or spread of diseases in a poultry flock.
“When we are talking about biosecurity, we are talking about two things: keeping wild birds out and keeping our birds healthy,” Dr. Justin Bergeron, assistant state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said.
Wild birds such as ducks or geese can carry serious diseases such as Avian flu that can quickly infect and destroy a backyard flock, Bergeron said, and it’s up to the poultry hobbyist to be ever vigilant.
“We know the wild birds carry it and many of our backyard birds have some free range or pasture time,” Bergeron said. “There is nothing we can do if a duck flies over and deposits a wonderful load of virus.”
But steps can be taken to discourage wild birds from hanging around too close to domestic fowl.
“Don’t place birdfeeders near the chicken ranging area, and try not to have your coops or ranging area next to a swamp or water body,” Bergeron said. “If you see wild birds around, try to figure out a way to discourage them from hanging around.”
To assure a healthy flock, Dr. Richard Brzozowski, food system program administrator with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, recommends developing and practicing an effective biosecurity plan.
“We encourage a written plan so it is something they don’t forget,” Brzozowski said. “You need to have these principles you follow and observe and develop a sort of routine and then know what to look for so you can spot any health issues.”
Diseases and health issues, according to Brzozowski, that include salmonella, avian influenza and Newcastle disease.
Bird owners should be aware of the signs of avian influenza — which can be spread through bird droppings or bird-to-bird direct contact or carried by equipment that has come into contact with a diseased bird.
Signs include sudden, unexpected deaths, lack of energy, decreased appetites, decreased egg production, soft-shelled or misshapen eggs and nasal discharge.
The near 100-percent fatal Exotic Newcastle Disease, or END, is also spread through contact with sick birds or their droppings and can wipe out a flock very quickly.
Signs to look for are sudden unexpected deaths, sneezing or gasping for air, drooping wings, swelling around the eyes and greenish watery diarrhea.
The only 100 percent effective means to prevent any disease transfer is to place a flock in a sort of poultry cloistered confinement, Brzozowski said. But that’s not popular among today’s part-time poultry farmers, according to John Rebar, director of University of Maine Cooperative extension, who like to watch their small flocks enjoy free range time.
Still, there are things the backyard farmer can do to keep a small flock healthy while still enjoying having chickens pecking around outside, Rebar said.
He recommends keeping a flock as separate as possible from any other birds, wild or domestic by using good fencing; avoid introducing new birds into an existing flock without first quarantining the newcomers for at least two weeks; anyone visiting should not have had any contact with any other birds within the previous 24 hours; keep things clean; immediately remove any dead or dying birds; and practice safe and effective pest control as rodents can carry diseases harmful to poultry and humans.
Backyard poultry enthusiast Chris Nichols will be the first to admit she’s not a fanatic when it comes to the cleanliness of her family’s chicken coop. But nor does she allow dirt or other biologicals to pile up anywhere close to the point of becoming health hazards.
“Our egg boxes are always clean with no [chicken] poop in them and we keep the coop clean,” Nichols said. “That way our eggs are always clean.”
Avian flu and END are not considered major threats to backyard poultry farmers, Bergeron said, but salmonella can and often does jump from bird to human.
“There is a lot of it getting passed around these days,” he said. “We need to remember birds have their houses and we have ours [and] it’s never a good idea to snuggle or kiss chickens, no matter how cute they are.”
Live poultry might have salmonella germs in their droppings and on their bodies even when they appear healthy and clean. Those germs can get on cages, coops, feed and water dishes, hay, plants and soil in the area where the birds live and roam.
Germs also can get on the hands, shoes, and clothes of people who handle or care for the birds.
According to the CDC, there have been eight outbreaks of salmonella in the country so far this year.
The germs can also get on the eggs through the laying process and Brzozowski recommends washing eggs thoroughly with a brush or cloth as washing eggs in cold water can actually pull the bacteria into the egg.
Brzozowski understands poultry enthusiast like to exchange birds or add new ones as older egg producers age out, but he said it is not always a good idea.
“A lot of times someone will offer someone else a rooster or younger chicks from their own flocks,” he said. “But these birds are coming in from different environments and can have different germs or diseases.”
Bergeron compares it to young children at day care.
“All of the kids are relatively healthy, but all of them have their own little bit of sniffles,” he said. “When they are mixed together for the first time, they can all get the sniffles really bad.”
The same can happen when a new chicken carrying its own germs is introduced suddenly into an existing flock.
“This can make the existing birds really sick, and they don’t bounce back as well as kids do,” Bergeron said.
To further prevent flock-to-flock spread of disease, Bergon recommends people change their clothes before and after interacting with someone else’s chickens.
“It’s not just about keeping your own flock healthy,” he said. “It’s about keeping other flocks healthy, too.”
Brzozowski said he has already dealt with diseased backyard flocks four or five times this summer, and a majority of those cases were because of introducing new birds into an existing flock.
When Nichols and her wife Brenda Lichtenwalter Nichols added new chicks this year, Chris Nichols said they were careful to keep the new additions separate from the old gals for several weeks.
“The new chicks were in the garage for a long time before I moved them out into the yard,” she said. “I divided the pen in half with poultry fence so they were living side-by-side, but separate.”
Chris Nichols said her existing birds were healthy, and the chicks from a reputable farm supply store, so she was not overly concerned about introducing diseases.
“I do think about it,” she said. “I would never take chicks from somewhere else [and] I feel like my original hens are healthy and just assume the new ones will be allright.”
Sooner or later, Brzozowski said, the backyard flock members are going to get old and die off, and he understands people’s attachment to their birds.
“I really suggest they wait until all the old birds are gone before bringing in new ones,” he said. “But I understand people also want a constant egg production and will bring in new birds before the older ones who may not be laying any longer die of natural causes [because] they are attached to them.”
Rebar recommends poultry owners contact Extension if one or more of their birds dies suddenly for no apparent reason.
The university operates a state-of-the-art diagnostic lab capable of performing necropsies — animal autopsies — to determine exact cause of death and advice the poultry owner.
Meanwhile, back in the Nichols flock, Chris Nichols said she and her family plan to keep their coop and yard clean, but not go overboard.
“We feel a little bit of crap that comes from farm life is healthy for people,” she said.