Be prepared when getting your first chicks -- raising hens is addicting and you soon find yourself with new chicks every year. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

When it was introduced in 1935, the National Poultry Improvement Plan was aimed at controlling a disease that was killing up to 80 percent of commercially produced chicks. Though the certification is still a requirement for commercial hatcheries who ship chicks across state lines today, it has since also evolved to include certifications for small, backyard poultry hobbyists.

But why would a homestead want it?

If you are raising a small flock of birds, participation in the NPIP certification program is strictly voluntary. But it’s worth considering, according to Dr. Carolyn Hurwitz, assistant state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. It shows you are aware of the diseases that can affect poultry and are serious about taking steps to keep your birds healthy, Hurwitz said.

“When it started, the NPIP certification was focused on preserving the health of birds at commercial hatcheries so the [poultry] industry could grow successfully,” Hurwitz said “The program has grown over the years to include different facets of the poultry industry and more recently a section was included to focus on hack yard hobbyists and exhibition flocks.”

According to Hurwitz, applying the same standards to small growers as those applied to the poultry industry at large ensures healthy birds all around.

“In the real world none of these birds exist in a vacuum,” Hurwitz said. “So if there was a disease outbreak in a small, backyard flock it can spread and even be transported to other flocks by migrating waterfowl or rodents.”

The regulations for certification for hobby flocks are slightly different than for larger commercial hatcheries but the goal is the same, according to Hurwitz. Everyone wants healthy, breeding and production birds that are free from diseases such as Salmonella pullorum and typhoid.

If you just have a backyard flock that isn’t going anywhere, you don’t have to pursue certification,” Hurwitz said. “But it is a good opportunity to have a knowledgeable person come on to your farm to inspect and impart knowledge and resources to help you meet the health needs of your birds.”

Becoming NPIP certified as a small backyard farmer or hobbyist starts with submitting blood samples from a representative selection of birds from your flock. The test is looking for Salmonella and fowl typhoid. After the bird is tested, it is fitted with a small metal wing tag for identification purposes.

The second part of certification is following prescribed biosecurity practices like keeping feed in metal containers to prevent attracting rodents, maintaining fresh clean bedding in the coop and managing waste disposal in a hygienic manner.

The NPIP is managed by the state which contracts with individuals who do the actual blood tests and inspections, Hurwitz said.

Once you do have certification, to maintain it you can only by chicks or adult birds from other NPIP certified hatcheries or farms.

Currently there are 83 small hobby farms that are NPIP certified in Maine, Hurwitz said.

Of course, if you are a Maine homesteader that plans to show or display your birds at live poultry events, you will need the certification. It’s required, in that case, as it is for breeders who plan to ship adult birds or chicks across state lines.

The big killer of the chicks back in the 1930s was Salmonella pullorum and a form of poultry typhoid that can quickly get out of hand when conditions are unsanitary. Thanks to NPIP, which was started and overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture, outbreaks are extremely rare in commercial hatcheries today.

“When you have NPIP certification you become part of that community,” Hurwitz said. “You are able to tap into the knowledge and resources of other farms and hatcheries that share the certification.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.