I’m concerned about reports of the avian flu virus, which I’ve heard can pass from wild birds to chickens. How can I protect my flock?
I am a true free-range, heritage-breed, multi-species poultry farmer in the Northwest. I raise heritage chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese together in one flock on pasture in a direct path of migratory wild bird flocks. In 2015, there was an outbreak of bird flu in my county. This would have most poultry raisers running for the hills. But my free-range chickens aren’t sick, have never been sick, and, I predict, will not get sick. I have excellent biosecurity measures in place at my farm, even though these measures aren’t the same biosecurity measures proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). I fully understand the risks and am flat against allowing any virus to take hold of my flock and endanger my family and community. My biosecurity measures aren’t for everyone. If you’re a part-time poultry raiser and your birds and livestock are more of an afterthought, or if you choose to confine your livestock and don’t participate in all the measures I suggest, the USDA biosecurity measures would probably suit your circumstances better.
When I faced the decision to use either the USDA’s industrial biosecurity measures or to come up with another viable solution, I wondered why only a tiny percentage of wild birds actually become ill from this deadly infection, even though they’re often carriers of the virus. Why do wild birds stay healthy even though they’re routinely exposed to the virus? The reason is that they’re wild. They’re graced with lots of sunshine, a variety of food, the ability to exercise, a balanced flock, and a natural life cycle. My solution is fairly simple: Imitate nature and add in only a touch of human intervention where necessary.
Here are some steps I’ve come up with to prevent bird flu in chickens:
1. Free-range your chickens on spacious, diverse, fresh pasture. Allow them free access to a multitude of grasses; legumes; berries, such as elderberries and blackberries; insects; worms and slugs; and health-promoting herbs, such as oregano, plantain, and sage. For ducks and chickens, provide about 5 to 10 square feet per bird, and for turkeys and geese, provide 10 to 20 square feet, depending on seasonal weather and the current condition of the pasture. Rotate them often; after the plant material becomes matted down by little birdy feet, rotate the birds to fresh pasture. The space will provide your birds with ample opportunities to exercise, munch on delicious greens, snatch insects, and breathe fresh air.
2. Provide your livestock with clean water, organic apple cider vinegar, and oregano essential oil. At the end of summer, right before wild bird migration occurs, start putting a couple of tablespoons of organic apple cider vinegar and 15 drops of oregano essential oil per gallon of water into their waterers. This treatment will stop bad bacteria and viruses from infecting your flock, and will provide your birds with an excellent probiotic to give their immune systems a boost.
3. Give your flock free access to a dry, secure shelter. Make sure your coop is secured against predators. Predator stress compromises your livestock’s health just as much as rain, snow, ice, wind, and too much sun. Access to a dry, secure shelter can save the day for your birds and for you.
4. Mimic a natural flock environment in which the mother hen hatches and raises her young, the gander goose protects and cares for the flock, and the birds are harvested at a natural age. Seek out heritage breeds, as they have better genetics to support this natural lifestyle and cycle. Mimicking a natural flock environment will decrease your birds’ stress level, create continuity, and ensure that great genetics and skills are passed down to the next generation.
5. Make sure your birds get plenty of sunlight. Sunlight kills the bird flu virus and aids in vitamin D production, which boosts a bird’s immune system. Sunlight is such a good thing.
6. Last but not least, protect yourself. Even if you stop the bird flu virus in your flock, you could still be exposed yourself. Wear disposable nitrile gloves when working with your birds. Wash your hands afterward, each and every time. Wear a specific pair of work boots, and when you’re done, rinse them off and store them on a boot bathmat outside your front door in a rinse of hydrogen peroxide powder, castile soap, and water. Don’t track the outdoor poultry mess into your home.
Together, we can stop the spread of this deadly virus and take better care of our animals and ourselves.