Backyard chickens Part 1: Preparing to buy healthy birds
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.
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 Agricultureon 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.
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