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Backyard chickens

by CONTRIBUTED REPORT/TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
| March 13, 2023 1:00 AM

After egg prices hit record highs in late 2022 and early 2023, having a flock of backyard chickens to provide a personal supply of eggs can be tempting.

Part 1: Preparing to buy healthy birds

Dr. Isabelle Louge, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, offers tips for designing coops and researching hatcheries before bringing chickens home and keeping them healthy and happy.

First, Louge suggests that owners prepare a spacious coop with fencing to prevent overcrowding and predation, which is the act of one animal killing another for food.

“Overcrowding can lead to disease, aggression, and even deadly injury among the chickens,” Louge said. “Additionally, poor fencing and housing can lead to predation; a single mink could come in through a hole barely larger than half an inch and kill an entire flock at once.”

The coop should have at least 3 square feet per standard heritage breed chicken such as Barred rock or Australorp, according to Louge. Smaller breeds need at least 2 square feet per bird, while giant breeds need 4 or 5 square feet per bird.

Providing ample space within the coop makes it easier for owners to clean as well, which is necessary to keep chickens healthy.

“The buildup of droppings leads to poor air quality and increased rates of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases,” Louge said. “Owners should clear out the coop frequently, at least every two days.”

Louge explained that combining a deep bedded pack system with appropriate ventilation, or the movement of fresh air in a closed space, can reduce how often a coop requires cleaning. A deep bedded pack system is created by turning over the soiled bedding repeatedly and adding a new layer of bedding to allow the droppings to decompose.

This ventilation is necessary to maintain healthy chickens, according to Louge.

“The best ventilation systems circulate air at the level of the bird's heads when they are roosting and standing on the floor,” Louge said. “This will help keep the air fresh, prevent harmful gas buildup produced by droppings, and help keep the birds cool when it is hot out.”

For owners who buy layers, or hens suited for regularly laying eggs, Louge advises owners to provide at least one nest box per four birds with nesting materials such as straw or shredded paper.

Once owners are prepared to house their chickens, they should research the best place to buy chicks or pullets, female chickens under a year old who have not started to lay eggs.

Louge encourages prospective bird owners to buy chickens from commercial hatcheries that vaccinate for Marek’s disease, a common and highly contagious disease among chickens. There is no cure or treatment for the disease, so prevention is critical.

“Chickens can only be vaccinated in the egg or at 1 day of age, since vaccinating later in life does not ensure protection,” Louge explained.

Some hatcheries also are certified to protect chickens from other dangerous diseases.

“The best sources for chicks and pullets are hatcheries that are National Poultry Improvement Plan certified for, at minimum, Salmonella pullorum and, ideally, monitored or certified for mycoplasma and avian influenza,” Louge said.

Salmonella pullorum, a bacterial disease, and mycoplasma, a chronic respiratory disease, are infectious among chickens, but Louge points out that avian influenza is an important problem in chickens.

“All chicken keepers should contact a veterinarian if they notice respiratory issues in their flock or if they have multiple birds that die in a short period of time,” Louge said.

Louge also recommends owners familiarize themselves with tips from the United States Department of Agriculture on recognizing and preventing avian influenza.

Before joining the family, backyard chickens should be healthy in a comfortable environment designed with their needs in mind. Once they are at ease in their new home, they’ll become egg-cellent additions to the family.

Part 2: Maintaining Healthy Birds

After researching, preparing for, and buying healthy chickens, first-time flock owners will need to know all that is involved in keeping their birds healthy.

Dr. Isabelle Louge, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, encourages owners to first contact their veterinarian after bringing home their chickens to discuss resources for maintaining flock health.

“Because there is a shortage of veterinarians who are willing to see poultry in backyard flock scenarios, it is important to reach out to clinics before you have a problem to ensure that you can find reliable information and help with managing the health of your flock,” Louge said.

Among the most basic considerations to keeping flocks healthy, backyard chickens should always have clean water and a nutritional diet, according to Louge.

“Water and its container should be checked daily to ensure that they are clean,” Louge said. “Containers should also be cleaned out, disinfected fully, and rinsed out thoroughly at least twice a week to prevent bacteria buildup that can make your birds sick.”

For a nutritional diet, Louge advises owners to match the correct feed with a chicken's life stage. This will depend on if you are raising a flock of laying birds, or chickens that lay eggs; broilers, or chickens raised for meat production; or a combination of the two.

“Chicks require specially formulated diets before they are transitioned to a layer feed, for layers, or a finishing diet, for broilers,” Louge said. “We are very fortunate to have many commercially available, well-balanced chicken feeds, which should be fed as per label directions and be the main source of the chicken’s food.”

Owners can also feed their chickens treats, such as mealworms or chicken scratch, but Louge specified that treats should make up less than 10% of a chicken’s diet. Additionally, Louge encourages owners to be cautious when feeding chickens table scraps because moldy and spoiled food can make them sick.

In addition, owners should avoid foods that are poisonous for chickens, including avocados, dried beans, uncooked potatoes, tomato plants, salty foods, onions, pits of stone fruits like peaches, and rhubarb.

Louge recommends owners also provide laying birds with extra calcium, which is needed to make eggshells and can be found in free-choice crushed oyster shells or commercial calcium supplements made for laying hens.

Finally, new flock owners should be aware of common injuries caused by other chickens or predators that enter the coop, such as snakes, raccoons, and coyotes, and understand how to address those injuries.

“As basic first aid for wounds no deeper than the skin, owners should clean the surface of the wound with warm water and dilute iodine or betadine,” Louge explained. “Owners should also separate any injured birds until they fully heal to prevent flock mates from pecking at the wound and making it far worse.”

Louge suggests placing the injured chicken in a small-sized see-through cage in the coop to keep them with their flock while they recover but also to prevent bullying from other chickens. This can prevent bullying when the healed chicken re-enters the flock as well.

But if the wound appears deeper than the skin or the wounded chicken seems sick, Louge advises owners to seek veterinary help as soon as possible to determine the best treatment plan. Sick chickens tend to hold their head low, appear fluffed out, are lethargic, have no appetite, lose weight, and limp.

In addition to looking out for the birds’ health, it is also essential that owners protect their own health when caring for their chickens, which carry salmonella, a bacterial infection that can cause humans to experience diarrhea, fever, and stomach pains.

“It is very important for human caretakers to always wear gloves when cleaning out a chicken coop, avoid breathing in any dust produced by the birds or found in the coop, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling chickens or chicken products like eggs,” Louge said.

Since chickens carry diseases that can make humans very ill, Louge recommends supervising children when interacting with chickens and discourages kissing chickens and touching faces after handling chickens.

To raise a healthy chicken flock, you should follow good chicken management that can protect the health of your flock and you as a chicken caretaker, leading your chickens to have egg-ceptionally healthy lives.

Pet Talk is a service of the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to vmbs-editor@tamu.edu.

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/TEXAS A&M

Poultry is susceptible to a variety of medical issues, just like any person, pet or livestock. Taking some simple precautions to ensure a healthy environment can ensure that they live happy, healthy, egg-producing lives.