Keeping poultry on a small scale

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This is an updated summary from a poultry workshop held in 2016. The workshop was led by Dr Jayne Weller from Exotic Animal Veterinary Service and Dr Kate Sawford the District Veterinarian from South East Local Land Services. The main topics covered on the day were keeping chickens on a small scale, exotic and zoonotic diseases of poultry and farm biosecurity. The workshop was held at Carwoola Farm which has now ceased operations.

The key take home messages from the workshop were:

• When designing a chicken coop for layers it’s a good idea to keep the nesting boxes at a lower level than the roosting perches to encourage the chooks to sit on the perches at night rather than in the nesting boxes. Designing your hen house in this way will reduce the amount of poo in the boxes – and as a bonus  you will get clean eggs.
• Clean eggs are safer for consumption. Egg shells are porous and if eggs are heavily contaminated with poo, the bacteria can move into the egg and make you sick.
• Clean next boxes are also healthier for the chooks. Bacterial can move up the chook’s reproductive tract while she is laying the egg, and these infections can be very serious.
• If you are not producing your own chicks (from existing chooks and roosters), try to stick to either buying immunised chicks or using one trusted supplier to reduce the chance of introducing disease to your flock. Always quarantine new batches from existing birds for at least three weeks.
• Commercial feeds have been developed for climate-controlled large-scale commercial production. This will usually not be the best nutrition for your backyard layers. Provide your chickens with a diet containing 16% protein. If the feed has less protein than this, consider additional protein sources. You can also do online courses to learn how to make your own balanced diet for layers.
• Chooks need additional sources of calcium to form the egg shell. If your commercial feed has less than 4% calcium, top it up with a little calcium powder (powdered limestone) and also offer free access to larger pieces of calcium source like oyster shell-grit or eggshells. If feeding eggshells back to the chooks, make sure all egg material has been cooked off in a low oven.
• Diagnosing sick chooks is very difficult – even for vets – and often requires an autopsy. Many diseases and nutrient deficiencies can have similar presentations. Often, symptoms are noticed when it is already too late. Prevention of disease and nutrient deficiency is definitely the way to go.
• If one of your chickens happens to get sick, remove them from the main flock to reduce the risk of spread and put them in a temporary pen. This is called a hospital pen and should be far enough away that the sick chook can’t sneeze droplets onto the other chooks. On the other side of a solid structure is the best.
• To stop chooks flying, you cut seven primary feathers on both wings. Cutting the feathers on only one wing makes the chook unbalanced and they can hurt themselves.
• You can make a quick pen using $50 temporary fence panels available from a well-known hardware store with an electric wire around the bottom.
• Chooks breathe in strange ways. They don’t have muscles to draw the air in. If you hold them to tight or squash them, they can’t breathe.
• There are some home remedies to assist an egg-bound hen, but if you are not making progress quickly, they will need to be taken to a vet. The vet will anaesthetise them and remove the egg. They are at a high-risk of ongoing problems and may need medications. There is a permanent operation that vets can do to prevent it happening again but it is extremely expensive and they won’t lay eggs anymore.
• Some illnesses in chickens, like salmonella and Avian Influenza can be passed on to humans. The government monitors for these diseases, especially those which are usually exotic to Australia, and others which can impact on our poultry industries. If you have chickens showing unusual symptoms, or many of them getting sick at once, you should contact your local District Veterinarian or the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline. They will assess whether testing is required. They will not force you to destroy your poultry as a result of this testing unless the risk to public health is extremely high.

Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline: 1800 675 888

Contact your Local Land Services District Vet

Resources and Information

Here is a collection of websites and information which may be relevant to your small farm.

NSW Food Authority website

Small Egg Farms

NSW Department of Primary Industries Primefacts and website

DPI Keeping Poultry on a Small Scale

Backyard Poultry Forum http://forum.backyardpoultry.com/

Common Diseases of Backyard Chooks

This summary was updated with help of Dr Lou Baskind, District Veterinarian, South East Local land Services. The event was made possible with funding from South East Local Land Services and funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.