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Backyard Poultry 101

By Nancy Glazier

Chickens are an easy way to raise your own meat and eggs. They don’t require a lot of work or time and flocks are great for kids to care for, from collecting eggs to feeding and watering. Birds need to get off to a good start; healthy chicks, proper nutrition, water and shelter equates to the beginning of a healthy productive flock!

Some happy backyard chickens

The first thing is to find a reputable source for chicks. Buy from one hatchery to reduce the risk of bringing disease onto the farm. Most hatcheries will ship chicks within one day of hatching. Some will vaccinate if you request them.  Many of the old-time diseases are making a comeback since chicks may not be vaccinated. Vaccines to consider include Marek’s disease, Newcastle, and Infectious Bronchitis. It may not be necessary for broilers, but laying hens hang around for several years which increases their health risks.

Have housing ready for chicks; they will need a heated brooder for a few weeks before they venture out. If you had a previous flock, the pens or house should be thoroughly cleaned and allowed to dry to reduce the risk of infecting the young birds with diseases. Disinfectants containing quaternary ammonium are good choices.

Upon arrival, give each chick a drink of water; they have been without food and water since they left the hatchery, so they will be thirsty. Feed and water should always be available.  Feed can be commercially purchased or mixed at home. If farm-mixed, make sure all essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids are provided or deficiencies will develop. Your local feed mill can mix a ration for you if you purchase a quantity.

A dry and ventilated living area is important to keep the flock healthy. Bedding should be dry with shavings or straw added when needed. A closed-up coop can lead to respiratory diseases and build-up of ammonia from manure. Visitors to the farm that have their own flocks should wear clean shoes to prevent spreading diseases. Limiting exposure to wild birds can also reduce the risk of diseases.  Rodents can be disease carriers, so keep them out of housing and feed.

Parasites – both internal and external – can reduce productivity. Chickens can become infested with mites and lice. Signs are feather loss and reduced egg production; severe infestations can cause death. Spraying or dusting with carbaryl will control the pests, and providing an area for dust baths will help. Most common internal parasites are roundworms and tapeworms. Another parasite, cocci (protozoa) causes coccidiosis that can cause high mortality in young birds. It can be more common in wet and humid conditions, and can be controlled with medicated feeds containing coccidiostats.

Predators can be real problems in rural or suburban areas. Foxes, raccoons, weasels, hawks, owls and even the neighbor’s dog can prey on the flock. Guard animals, like dogs and geese may help protect them. Free-ranging flocks should have a safe place to roost for the night.

For more information on poultry health, visit the National Poultry Improvement Program at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_dis_spec/poultry/

Nancy Glazier is Small Farms Support Specialist for the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team of Cornell Cooperative Extension/PRO-DAIRY, and has a small flock of egg layers. You can reach her at 585-315-7746 or nig3@cornell.edu.

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