Raising Healthy Backyard Chickens
March 16, 2022
USDA-ARS Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory Lab Director Dr. David Swayne and Veterinary Medical Officer Dr. Anne Hurley-Bacon with the U.S. National Poultry Research Center, Athens, GA, share best practices to avoid the spread of diseases caused by microorganisms and tips on raising your own healthy and happy backyard chickens.
Q. Should we vax for avian pox or anything else?
A. Vaccines are available for many poultry diseases in the commercial production systems. Vaccines are usually produced in large dose vials - 500 to 1000 doses. Vaccination for fowl pox is typically done at one day of age in the hatchery. This is widely practiced by large hatcheries for egg type chickens. Check with the hatchery you are obtaining your chicks to see if they do one day of age vaccination for Fowl pox.
Q. When is the best time to process your chickens .. age-wise?
A. As far as the processing your chickens age-wise it really depends on the type birds you have and your goals. Your typical meat type backyard birds are processed around 10 to 12 weeks of age.
Q. Do you need to provide a calcium supplement?
A. Chickens who are laying eggs require increased levels of calcium in the diet as they are depositing calcium in the eggshells. This can be provided by using a commercial diet with the higher level of calcium or supplementing with another source of calcium such as top dressing a standard feed with crushed oyster shells. Failure to provide increased calcium to laying hens can lead to soft bones and thin shelled eggs.
Q. Is there a way to prevent comb frostbite during the winter?
A. One of the best preventive practices is to choose cold hardy breeds if you are in an area that has severe winter conditions. These types of birds tend to have smaller combs making them less prone to frostbite. The next step would be to ensure you have a properly insulated and ventilated coop.
Q. Are there foods (table scraps) that I should avoid giving my chickens?
A. You can feed table scraps but make sure the materials are composed of a diverse variety of plant materials. It is good to also provide some supplementation with commercial feed for additional energy, protein, and vitamins
Q. How many chickens are recommended for an 8' x 8' x 8' coop?
A. Things to consider include the type and age of the birds you want to house. Obviously the larger the bird will be at an adult age, the fewer birds you could house in this space. A good reference would be a flock that consists of adult layer hens you would target 3 to 4 square feet for each bird.
Q. Does chicken manure carry Salmonella bacteria? If yes, how can we sterilize it, before using on garden plants? Do worm bins sterilize?
A. Composting is an effective way to eliminate pathogens including salmonella from the manure. Check with your local county extension agent to get pamphlets that describe how to properly compost poultry manure. The manure will need to be mixed with a second carbon source such as straw and turned at specific intervals.
Q. Our local extension agent said no one should be getting chickens at all. Do you feel the same?
A. With the HPAI outbreak one will need to be highly cautious if planning on getting backyard birds, but it can be done. We highly recommend the "defend the flock" USDA website where they provide very good information on how to protect your flock through good biosecurity practices.
Q. Can you have free range chickens or do they have to be in the coop?
A. With the HPAI outbreak it is highly recommended you keep your birds inside a protected area to prevent them from co-mingling with wild bird populations that might be carrying pathogens that can be catastrophic for your flock. Please see the links posted that provide exactly biosecurity standards and information.
Guidance for poultry producers, hunters, health care providers, and public from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Latest finding from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
Defend the Flock Resource Center
Anyone involved with poultry production from the small backyard to the large commercial producer should review their biosecurity activities to assure the health of their birds. APHIS has materials about biosecurity, including videos, checklists, and a toolkit available at aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/defend-the-flock-program/dtf-resources/dtf-resources