9 biosecurity tips for pastured poultry flocks

Biosecurity plans and practices revolve around the idea of prevention rather than treatment, and reducing opportunities for contamination on a poultry farm.

Photo by Andrea Gantz
Photo by Andrea Gantz

“Prevention is way less expensive and less of a hassle than having to treat a flock for disease,” said Kevin Ellis presenting biosecurity tips for pastured poultry in a webinar on May 17, 2018. Ellis is a poultry specialist with Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA), a national sustainable agriculture assistance program developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Business-Cooperative Service.

Ellis, who has raised pastured poultry for almost 20 years, offered proactive steps to increase poultry farm biosecurity by planning ahead of the chicks' arrival and through day-to-day management. “Prevention of disease is the ultimate goal,” stated Ellis. “And a big component of keeping your birds happy and healthy is biosecurity.”

Biosecurity by definition, said Ellis, is the practice and planning to reduce flock contact with possible disease-causing agents. Biosecurity plans and practices revolve around the idea of prevention rather than treatment, and reducing opportunities for contamination.

Understanding how disease is spread

To understand why biosecurity and biosecurity planning are important, “Let’s go back to the spring of 2015,” said Ellis. From December 2014 through June 2015, the U.S endured its largest animal health emergency, with more than 200 cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) found in commercial and backyard poultry, as well as wild birds, across the country, according to the USDA. While it was initially spread by wild birds, poor planning and lapses in biosecurity kept it from being contained.

Disease spreads from two major modes of transmission: direct, as in birds coming in contact with each other or a carrier, and indirect, which is contact with an infected object, like shoes or equipment. Understanding how disease is spread is key to implementing a successful biosecurity plan.

While it is hard to control many external factors like wild birds and wind, there are plenty of things that can be controlled on a poultry farm. Ellis recommends paying attention to the following nine tips.

1. Prevent, limit contact with wild birds

“Birds are going to come onto your farm,” stated Ellis. “So how can you limit the overall exposure with your flock?” Ellis recommends poultry farmers be aware of migratory patterns and their overall farm layout — and then limit the poultry from coming near those areas. “You need a good bird's-eye view of your farm,” he explained. “Be aware of the flyways and pay attention to when birds will be in your area.” 

Once aware of the wild birds that will be on or near the farm, have feeders and waterers accessible only to poultry. Use equipment to minimize contact as much as possible, such as treble feeders, which are designed to open only when birds stand on a platform. Netting is also an option to keep wild birds out of pastures. Ellis recommends using colorful netting to keep wild birds from getting trapped in it. 

Hoop houses are popular designs to exclude wild birds from accessing feed and water. A plus of this design is that it also reduces predators. Build pens to exclude not only wild birds, but wild animal pests like rats and mice and other predators that can carry disease. Scents, like cayenne pepper, can keep away pests and predators that want to get at the poultry.

2. Pay attention to poultry sourcing

Sourcing is another aspect that can be controlled to help prevent disease. “A big part of disease control starts when the birds are young,” said Ellis. “For a lot of people, this means getting day-old chicks from a hatchery.” From a health perspective, Ellis recommends bringing home day-old chicks rather than older birds. There is more of an investment up front in time and feed cost, but there is less risk of existing diseases, and the birds adapt better to their surroundings, he explained. 

Chicks must come from a hatchery that can certify that the birds are healthy, Ellis explained. Make sure the hatchery is National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) approved. It’s also important to talk to a breeder about disease resistance and look for breeds that are not susceptible to certain diseases; some heritage breeds are especially suited to being raised on pasture.

Ellis also recommends that poultry farmers consider reputation: talk to other farmers and see how healthy their birds are; often this is a good source to discover whether a hatchery is having problems. “Starting a dialogue with your hatchery and other farmers around you is very important when we’re talking about sourcing,” said Ellis.

3. Give birds the best start with good brooder management

Before the birds arrive, Ellis stated that the brooder must be cleaned out completely. Replace the shavings, disinfect the walls and floor, clean the feeders and waterers — all of this is critical to disease prevention. Ellis recommends waiting at least two weeks between flocks, although a month is better. The brooder must have time to rest and let some of the pathogens die off. Rushing to bring a new set of birds into the brooder too soon can cause disease.

“Spend some time in the brooder when they are young; they will tell you how they are feeling,” said Ellis. Record any changes in feed consumption, or mortalities, as these early warning signs may give clues. “A lot of this will take observing — on air quality, do you smell any ammonia? If you can smell it, chances are that down on the ground it’s at a very high level, which will cause issues.”

Ellis also recommends being aware that high stocking density increases susceptibility, and for different housing systems, it’s variable. “Are the birds having any negative outcomes, such as feather picking or cannibalism that may be an indicator that you have too many birds in one place? All of these things will go a long way into telling you how you need to manage your flock,” he said.

And finally, never allow chicks to have contact with full-grown birds, stressed Ellis. “Never mix flocks of different ages. Younger birds are more susceptible to disease, and older birds can pass it on to them,” he added.

4. Limit visitors to the farm

Visitors, especially unexpected visitors, are a big risk for disease-causing agents to make their way onto the farm. Ellis said that some farms he’s talked to have had problems with people seeing chickens on pasture and walking out there to get photos for Instagram and Facebook. This can be a problem, said Ellis, because “you don’t know what is on the bottom of their shoes.” He recommends having perimeter fence around the farm as well as warning signs that state the farm is active, that visitors need to check in and that they shouldn’t be out on the pastures.

For expected visitors, there a few things to keep in mind, said Ellis. Many farmers like to give educational tours for current or prospective farmers, which is a great way to share information, but it’s also a great way to share disease-causing agents. When working with farmers who have their own birds, have them wear a fresh set of clothes and shoes that have not been on their own pasture.

Ellis recommends structuring farm tours this way: “When doing tours, move from your younger birds to older. Start in the brooder and then move out to pasture.” This is for immunity reasons. For example, if someone walks through the pasture and steps in the manure an older bird, which may have recovered from something, and then walks through the brooder, the birds in the brooder could be exposed and not have the required immunity. He also recommends that all visitors stay outside of any fencing.

5. Require footwear, for everyone, always

Footwear is the most common introduction of disease-causing agents, said Ellis. It applies to the farmer and all staff as well as any visitors to the farm. It is critical to have a pair of chore shoes for each flock — one for the young birds, another for older birds, and keep them separate. For visitors, have plastic, disposable foot coverings.

Footbaths are also an option, and they are inexpensive and easy to make. The placement of footbaths is important. “I’ve seen people walk right around them,” said Ellis, who recommends that footbaths be placed in areas where people must walk through them to reach the birds. He also recommends using signs — as many as needed to get the point across.

6. Sanitize all vehicles, equipment

Vehicles are ever-present on a farm, whether it’s a feed delivery or picking up product. Delivery vehicles should be cleaned and sanitized before they are allowed onto your farm, said Ellis. It’s also important to keep roads separate from pastures — trucks should never drive through areas where the birds will be. Parking should be away from all areas where the birds will have contact with, as tires are a source of contamination.

Equipment and the types of materials used can also be a source of contaminates. Wood is porous and can absorb pathogens. It’s best to use plastic or metal, said Ellis, which can be washed and sanitized easily. “Sanitation is not just spraying something off with water,” he added. “It’s a combination of cleaning, which is removing organic material like dirt, feathers and manure, and disinfecting, which is the destruction of microorganisms and pathogens.”

Ellis also recommends using the same equipment throughout the life of the flock, and try not to switch feeders and waterers. If this cannot be avoided, sanitize everything completely.

As for manure, a major mode of transmission of poultry diseases, Ellis recommends composting manure from the brooder or poultry houses. If the flock has a disease, the manure needs to be removed and composted separately. All shovels and equipment to remove it must be thoroughly disinfected. 

7. Consider the source of feed, water

The feed itself can go a long way in overall performance and keeping your flock healthy, said Ellis, and it must be high quality feed that is stored well. Check feed regularly for mold and pests and keep track of how long it has been stored. It’s also important to make sure the birds are being fed correctly for species, age, and product, like meat or eggs. Ellis also recommends adding in a vitamin pre-mix that will cover all the nutritional basis for the birds.

“Water also goes a long way in keeping a flock healthy,” said Ellis. “Continuous access to clean water is vitally important.” It’s important to consider the source; test the water source to make sure there are no potentially problematic metals or bacteria. Clean the waterers as often as possible, at very least weekly, and don’t let water stand for any periods of time.

8. Monitor the environment

“Your environment will go a long way in telling you how you manage your birds,” said Ellis. If there is bare soil in the pasture, the birds need to be moved to allow the forages to regenerate, he explained. Some disease-causing agents can stay in the soil for years — Marek's disease can be present in the environment for years. Because of this, it’s important to avoid areas where water pools and to allow the pasture to rest.

The good news, said Ellis, is that with raising poultry on pasture there are three natural defenses to disease: UV radiation from the sun, temperature and time. This natural system can exclude viruses and pathogens.

9. If there is a problem, act fast

Visual signs of disease often show before mortality. Ellis is a big advocate of spending time with the flock. “Put down the feed bucket and watch your flock for 15 minutes a day,” he stated. “If you’ve been raising flocks for a while, you’ll know what their daily routine looks like, and if something is different, it should be easy to see.” 

Here are some common signs that something is wrong:

  • Depressed activity
  • Ruffled feathers
  • Breathing problems
  • Diarrhea, or other manure issues
  • Nasal discharge or eye build-up
  • Drop in feed intake
  • Swelling around joints
  • Drop in production

If any of these problems are noted, quickly removing the bird or birds from the flock is essential to not only monitor them further but also to make sure the rest of the flock doesn’t get infected. Move them to an area that is safe and secure, well-ventilated, with easy access to food and water. They need to be there for at least 30 days, said Ellis. Visit these quarantined places last when doing farm chores, and use boots that stay only in this area.

In addition, if there are warning signs, consult professionals, said Ellis. Every state has a diagnostic laboratory. 

Just have a plan in place

“Biosecurity planning is taking all of this information, putting it to paper, and applying it to your own farm,” said Ellis. He recommends outlining specific practices like cleaning frequency and procedures; map and plan rotations; have an up-to-date list of all personnel allowed on the farm; a list of veterinarian contact information; and sampling procedures.

“Putting all this together is really important in making sure you’re going to have your defenses up against any possible diseases you may have on your farm,” Ellis concluded.

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