Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, I think all of us are hyper aware of the importance of hand hygiene and appropriate social distancing in the prevention of illness in humans. It's easy to forget that our animals, especially poultry, are also vulnerable to disease. Having a solid biosecurity plan is essential for a small farm. Unfortunately, we learned this in the most heartbreaking way. After adding some hens to our small egg layer flock, we noticed several birds developing what appeared to be a respiratory infection. Though we quarantined the new additions, we did not separate with enough distance or time to prevent the spread of disease. Our vet tested several of the hens, who were, unfortunately, positive for mycoplasma gallisepticum. Once a bird is infected with MG, it is for life. Even asymptomatic birds and/or birds who recover with treatment are carriers and will spread the disease. We made the devastating decision to humanely depopulate our birds, thoroughly clean, and begin again.
So, what will we be doing differently from now on? We have decided to incorporate a few rules to keep all of our birds safe.
1) We will only day-old chicks from NPIP (National Poultry Improvement Plan) certified sources. It is important to note that NPIP does not specifically test for mycoplasmas, though a few farms do voluntarily and routinely test for this.
2) Each flock of birds (egg layers, meat chickens, turkeys) on the farm will be pastured separately from one another and will have designated human footwear, so that we do not transfer disease or parasites on the soles of our shoes. Items that could transfer disease, such as buckets, litter scoops, feeders, waterers, etc. will not be shared between flocks.
3) We will not be introducing new birds to our laying flock. If we feel that more laying hens are needed, they will be carefully procured as chicks and housed separately. As for the meat birds, they will all arrive on the same day, from the same hatchery.
4) It is important to be aware of the potential to bring disease home from places with other birds (not just chickens!). Other birds may be encountered at the feed store, fairgrounds, friend's farms, as so forth. To minimize risk, wash hands, change clothing and shoes upon returning home.
5) Wild birds carry disease and parasites. This is a tricky problem with pastured poultry, as it is impossible to keep wild birds from flying over our pastures. Secure mobile coops and electric fencing helps separate our domestic birds from their wild cousins.
This was a terrible lesson to learn, but one that will never be forgotten. Hopefully, this will help others keep their flocks safe.