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Avian Flu and You: What Backyard Flock Owners Need to Know About Avian Flu

Free Ranging Buff Orpingtons And Silver Laced Wyndottes Fenced With Portable Chicken penFree Ranging Buff Orpingtons And Silver Laced Wyndottes Fenced With Portable Chicken pen
On a recent afternoon, I found myself at the local stockyards, surrounded by large-scale poultry producers, representatives from major poultry companies, government officials, and virologists, epidemiologists and veterinarians from the US and North Carolina departments of agriculture. We were there to discuss avian influenza how it could affect our county, which is one of the biggest poultry-producing counties in the Southeastern US. I introduced myself as a small farm owner who keeps a small flock of laying hens and sells free-range eggs.

This didn't go over too well. There were a couple murmurs and at least one person was giving me the old' stink eye! However, I didn't interpret this as a personal dislike for me or my business. Neither did I see any indication that they viewed me as a member of an enemy "counterculture" faction or that they wished that "people like me" wouldn't raise poultry. What I could see is that they were worried that me or someone like myself could cause great harm to their industry and their livelihood. Upon listening to the information presented at the meeting, I discovered that their fear is not unfounded.

How Does Avian Flu Spread?

Avian Influenza is spread primarily by migratory birds, especially waterfowl. Small, "backyard poultry" producers have a reputation for keeping all kinds of birds-- chickens, ducks, geese, peafowl, you name it--and letting them roam and co-mingle as they please. I could just see the USDA vet's faces cloud over in horror as they imagined my laying hens sipping contaminated water out of a duck pond out on the "back 40" somewhere. This is close to a poultry epidemiologist's worst nightmare.

I explained to them that my birds were confined and drank fresh, clean well water. This eased their grimaces only slightly. What they were really concerned about was the fact that customers regularly visit my farm have access, albeit minimal, to my production animals. They had a point, because my visitors could have been coming directly from any number of places: another poultry-producing farm, a park where they were feeding breadcrumbs to ducks and geese, a county or state fair, etc.

My biggest concern was that many of my customers are frequent international travelers and may have recently been in countries with outbreaks of avian influenza. When I mentioned this fact, the veterinarians just looked at each other slack jawed and then let a "small-flock friendly" member of their delegation address my comments. This vet shared some important information with me and gave me valuable suggestions. She informed me that, since the virus could theoretically live for months if it's "holed up" in some manure in the tread of someone's shoe, they could unknowingly be carrying the virus from place to place with them. Therefore, it was very important for me to think about biosecurity on my farm.

Coming Up With an Avian Flu Bio Security Plan

I took her words to heart and thought of practical ideas that I could realistically use to help keep my birds out of harm's way. I decided on a three-pronged approach to my biosecurity plan. First, treat myself as a visitor. Second, limit access to my production flock. Third, find a way to minimize the number of people visiting my farm while maintaining the personal connection that customers have with me and my farm.

When I treat myself as a visitor, I assume that I could have been exposed to avian flu (or other infectious agents) and that I need to take precautions to ensure that I don't infect my birds. Therefore, I wash my hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after I visit my flock. When I have more than one group of birds on the farm, like when I'm raising chicks or meat birds, I wash my hands when I go from one group to another.

Since viruses, parasites and other bugaboos often hitchhike from place to place on shoes, I make sure that mine are clean before entering the chicken's pens. I accomplish this in two steps: using a boot scraper to remove as much muck from my boots as possible and then dipping my boots in a bleach solution (1/4 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water) that I mix up in a floppy near my chicken coop. This foot bath could be rough on leather boots, so I have a pair of rubber clogs that I use as "chicken shoes".

Clean hands and boots go a long way toward keeping me from spreading diseases to my chickens. Clean clothes are helpful too. I machine wash soiled work clothes daily and avoid having contact with my chickens unless my clothes are clean. Clothes that aren't clean include ones I have just worn to the feed store, the stockyards, or to any other place I have come into contact with other poultry producers, which, in my town, is almost anywhere!

Once I got the hang of treating myself as a visitor, I had to make a plan to accommodate the chicken's other visitors, most of whom are my customers. I wanted visitors to feel comfortable on my farm and be secure in the knowledge that the eggs and the other products they buy from me are wholesome and safe to eat. I wouldn't make them scrub their hands and go through a foot bath when they visited because I have a hunch that it would make them feel uneasy to do so.

Undercover Biosecurity to Help Control Avian Flu

My visitor biosecurity is "undercover". I decided that, while it's important for them to be able to see my chickens, they don't need to be able to touch them or go into their pens in order to have an enjoyable and fulfilling visit to my farm.

Since most of my chickens are kept in moveable chicken coops, I have the luxury of being able to move them from "front and center", as the first thing that visitors see when they pull up to my place, to "out of the action", at the periphery of my production area. This reduces foot traffic past them (both mine and other folks') while allowing visitors to get a clear view of them. Since the chickens are no longer "under foot", my visitors are not usually tempted to ask whether they can collect their own eggs, feed the chicks, etc. Thus, I'm limiting access to the birds in a passive way, without having to become the "bad guy" and without striking fear in my customer's hearts by mentioning avian flu, biosecurity or any other panic inducing topics.

All of the experts spoke to agreed that, ideally, for the sake of my flock's health, "anyone who doesn't have to be on your farm shouldn't be there." In order to come closer to this ideal, I have implemented new marketing strategies that have actually increased my egg and produce sales while decreasing the number of farm visits dramatically. My number one strategy was to encourage customers to take weekly deliveries of eggs and produce instead of picking them up at my farm. This forced me to streamline my marketing efforts by sending out weekly e-mails to my customer list in order to inform them about what produce I have available and to arrange centralized delivery points and times. Many of my customers passed these e-mails along to their friends, thereby creating more customers!

I created a "blog", or online diary, to allow my customers to take a virtual farm tour. My blog includes snippets about what my chickens and I are up to and lots of photos of my animals and my farm-related activities. This has the advantage of serving as an on-line scrapbook for me and I enjoy updating it several times a week. I have been both surprised and pleased to see that customers visit my blog frequently, some of them almost daily.

Sometimes, the precautions that I'm taking seem extreme to me. After all, a few chickens on a "hobby farm" hardly seem like they could really become the epicenter of a major disease outbreak. However, when I consider that being cautious and planning carefully has protected my birds and increased my business' bottom line, biosecurity seems like it's a good idea not only for large commercial producers but for me as well.



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