Editorial: How far should backyard chicken biosecurity go?

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I admit it. I have backyard chickens.

For a decade we’ve had about 10 chickens, give or take, on our farm that supply our family with as many eggs as we need.

There’s no question that they are pets — and my family has made that clear to me as I have suggested it might be time for some of them to move on, as I dream of some chicken soup.

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As one agriculture industry colleague told me once — her place is no retirement home for chickens.

It does appear to be the case at my place, as fat, old and always grumpy Olive the hen continues to rule the coop, seemingly free of any obligation to pay rent in eggs.

However, the younger generation of chickens does provide us with some eggs. We appreciate it, even though I half-heartedly calculated the return on the chicken feed once, and stopped and told myself again “Pets, yes they’re pets.”

Whether or not one’s backyard chickens are pets, there is significant concern in the commercial poultry industry that any chickens raised outside of the watchful eye of the chicken boards are reservoirs of disease.

A new University of Guelph study says they could be, and that backyard chicken owners take few steps that are taken in commercial poultry barns to maintain biosecurity and limit disease spread.

Prof. Leonardo Susta, who works in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College conducted the research in collaboration with colleagues at the university’s Animal Health Laboratory (AHL) and OMAFRA. The research was published recently in the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation.

Small flock owners submitted dead birds to the Animal Health Laboratory for a post mortem look, and they also were asked to fill out a questionnaire.

The researchers received 245 birds from 160 flocks, most of which were fewer than 25 birds and laying hens for family egg consumption.

The study found that poultry diseases were widespread. Infectious diseases killed 62 per cent of the chickens, with mixed respiratory diseases causing 21 per cent of deaths. Marek’s disease, which causes fatal tumours, killed 11 per cent of birds in the study.

A number of the chickens with respiratory disease carried Mycoplasma bacteria.

“This is a disease that is rarely seen in commercial flocks, yet one in five birds in this study were carrying the pathogen,” said Susta.

Some birds also contained Campylobacter, which can cause serious food poisoning in humans. The presence of Campylobacter itself means that better biosecurity is necessary, says Susta.

His survey of those who submitted specimens for the study showed that less than half have dedicated shoes or clothing for their chicken housing and chicken care. More than 60 per cent allow visitors into the chicken coop.

None of those findings are surprising. Chickens can be engaging and curiosity-inducing for people who don’t get to see them often. When my daughter’s town friends visit, there’s an inevitable visit to the chickens. We do emphasize hand washing after they are done.

What’s the biosecurity risk, versus the reward of young people being able to experience the animal from which they get their food?

I say it’s well on the side of the experience, although commercial chicken farmers might disagree.

I can understand why chickens are a different case than cows or pigs. There aren’t many pet cows in the neighbourhood which could serve as conduits for disease in commercial herds.

There are few pigs around as backyard production animals, as they require a whole other level of commitment compared to chickens.

Backyard pigs have not become popular in our cities, as the backyard chicken movement has grown there. I’d guess that the number of backyard chickens in cities is very small. The caché seems to have passed.

However, the presence of bacteria like Campylobacter should be a concern for cities which allow backyard chickens. Outbreaks only really become larger issues when populations are housed close together, such as in chickens in large barns, or people in cities.

I take precautions whenever I’m visiting a commercial poultry barn, similar to those followed by poultry service suppliers — clothing and shoes should be clean and shouldn’t have been in the chicken coop — and a couple of chicken-free days are also a good idea.

For now, I doubt I’m going to convince my family to change clothes going to feed the chickens or collect eggs. There will still be late night runs in whatever they’re wearing to check the chickens when chores have been forgotten. The lessons they learn from our few chickens about where their food comes from and the responsibility that comes from working animals are invaluable compared to the risk.

But we’ll have some more discussions about hand washing and boot cleaning and egg harvest, based on this new research.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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