Protect Your Birds Against Avian Flu

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC

There are many different strains of viruses that cause avian influenza (AI). These viruses affect wild birds, waterfowl, and backyard chickens, and commercial poultry. Most are not a big threat to you and your birds, but some strains are classified high pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), meaning they cause high rates of death among chickens. These high rates of death can be especially devastating to the commercial poultry industry, so it’s important that backyard chicken keepers be aware of outbreaks of HPAI.

woman with bucket walking to feed poultry

How can you keep your flock safe from the avian flu?

Avian flu and other infectious diseases can be transmitted by other animals, objects, or through the air. The key to keeping your birds from catching avian flu, or any contagious disease, is biosecurity, the practice of isolating your flock from direct or indirect contact with other birds to prevent them from getting an infectious disease.

Here are some steps you can take to prevent transmission of HPAI (or any other infectious disease). It’s a good practice to follow these tips on a regular basis, not just during an HPAI outbreak, however.

Take Measures Around Your Coop

  • Shore up your run with hardware cloth to prevent wild birds from entering.
  • Especially during outbreaks of HPAI or other highly pathogenic diseases, limit free ranging. You might want to build a bigger run and provide more enrichment.
  • Remove spilled feed that might attract wild birds and other wildlife.

Keep Things Clean

  • Clean feeders and waterers regularly.
  • Clean and disinfect new tools and equipment (waterers, feeders, rakes, shovels, scoops, etc.) before you use them.
  • When you clean the new items, prevent the runoff from reaching your coop.
  • Clean and disinfect your coop regularly.
  • Use a dedicated pair of shoes (and even clothing) to enter the chicken area.

Don’t Bring Diseases In

  • Don’t share or reuse materials or equipment.
  • If you interact with poultry that are not yours, disinfect yourself. Before getting in your car, spray down your shoes with a disinfectant approved by U.S. EPA for use against avian influenza and other poultry diseases. When you return home, remove and wash your clothes, shower, and wash your hair before going to your coop.
  • If you’ve been to a farm that has poultry, wash your car, including the undercarriage.
  • If you hunt gamebirds (pheasants, grouse, waterflow, etc.) for sport, be sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect any surfaces and items they may have come in contact with.
  • Don’t allow people who have chickens to interact with your birds unless they are wearing disinfected shoes and newly laundered clothes. You may also ask them to use shoe covers or a footbath containing an approved disinfectant. Have them clean off large clumps of material before using the footbath.

Flock Maintenance

  • Keep your birds separated by age and species. Some species and ages are more susceptible to certain disease-causing organisms.
  • Quarantine new birds for at least 30 days.
  • Keep a coop diary and log any changes (egg laying, symptoms, weight loss/gain, etc.)
  • Observe your birds and know signs of illness.
  • Report sick birds or high death rates over a short period of time.

Clinical Signs to Watch For

How do you know if your birds are sick? Watch for the following signs. These signs may not necessarily point to avian flu, but the first two especially are cause for immediate action.

  • Sudden death with no clinical signs
  • Many birds dying in a short period of time
  • Lack of energy or appetite
  • Stumbling or falling down
  • Diarrhea
  • Lack of coordination
  • Nasal discharge, snicking, sneezing
  • Legs, wattles, and comb turning purple
  • Swelling around the face (head, comb, wattles, eyelids)
  • Drop in egg production
  • Misshapen or soft-shelled eggs

Report sick birds immediately. Contact your state’s animal health official immediately if you suspect avian flu. Follow the instructions they provide. You can also call the USDA toll-free at 1-866-536-7593.

What to Have on Hand

Keep the following readily available so you can effectively put them to use.

  • Shoe or boot covers
  • Disposable plastic gloves
  • A disinfectant approved by U.S. EPA for use against avian influenza and other poultry diseases
  • Information on signs to watch for
  • Contact information of state or federal officials involved with poultry health

What to Do if a Bird Dies

Collect and preserve the body immediately. Place it in a plastic bag and cool the core by putting it in the refrigerator or in a cooler containing loose or bagged ice.

Contact your state’s animal health official immediately if you suspect avian flu. Follow the instructions they provide. You can also call the USDA toll-free at 1-866-536-7593.

 

More Information from the USDA

Check out the USDA’s Defend the Flock Resource Center for more information. It includes checklists, videos, and other resources at no charge.

Making the Switch: Chick Feed to Layer Ration

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC

It’s always a big event when your chickens start to lay! You and your birds put so much hard work and dedication into that moment, and the feed you give your birds is an important part of that first egg, too.  As your birds mature from fuzzy chicks into fully feathered adults, their nutritional needs change. The chick starter/grower they were eating now needs to be replaced with layer ration. How can you support this transition and help them live their best lives as laying hens? 

As your chicks become young adults, their dietary needs change.

Why do I need to switch?

The feed switch from chick starter/grower is critical for the health of your growing birds. So how do the needs of chicks and laying hens differ, and what are the differences between chick starter/grower and layer ration? The short answer is that chicks need feed that supports healthy growth, and hens need feed that supports healthy egg laying.

In their first months of life, chicks’ bodies experience a lot of changes. They need a feed focused on muscle and skeletal growth. Because chicks develop so quickly, their feed requires higher protein, more amino acids, and higher phosphorus levels to support growth. Giving chicks layer ration too soon can cause kidney or liver damage and growth problems.

Layers, on the other hand, need feed that supports egg production. Hens put lots of nutrients into eggs, and the vitamins and minerals that form the shell and its contents come from the hen’s diet. In addition, minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus are important for powering  muscles to lay the egg. Adult laying hens also need higher levels of Vitamin D3 to support calcium absorption.

 

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Either way, you should start with a good layer ration!

When should I switch?

Now that you know the why of switching from chick starter/grower to layer ration, let’s look at when. Most breeds start laying between 20 and 24 weeks of age. It’s important to start providing your hens with a quality layer feed before they begin laying. To prime your hen’s bodies for producing great eggs in the healthiest way possible, you should begin the switch to layer ration at around 16 weeks.

How do I make the transition easy?

Chickens are creatures of habit who like routines and continuity. Because chickens like things to be the same, it’s important to maintain consistency in nutrition. The best way to make a diet transition is to introduce the new food gradually. If you attempt to switch too quickly, you may see the following effects:

  • Digestive upset: A new diet may cause intestinal distress. Signs include a change in the color and consistency of droppings: they may be darker or lighter, or drier or runnier. During a diet change, feeding too many treats also can cause digestive upset and affect the overall health of your birds.
  • Refusal to eat: Chickens like things to be the same. It’s part of being a prey species. Their need for consistency includes their environment, flock mates, feeding times — and their diet. If you switch out a food all at once, they may not recognize the new feed and may stop eating altogether!
  • Overall health decline: Birds who are not happy with their new feed may experience health effects or fail to thrive. They might eat less, thereby getting fewer nutrients. If they free range, they may eat too many things that do not contain the right nutrients, and their bodies will not be ready for the transition to laying.

Now that you know the importance of a gradual transition, you can keep in mind the following to help you transition from one feed to another.  

  • Taste and smell: Formulated feeds from different companies have different ingredients, and it may be easier to stay with one brand, rather than switching brands. For example, Nutrena’s new improved NatureWise line includes essential oils that improve the taste and smell of the feed. If you start your birds on NatureWise Chick Starter Grower, they may move more easily to NatureWise Layer Feed.
  • Visual appearance: The shape of the feed is important, too. Birds are very visual creatures, so they will move more easily to a new feed that looks familiar. Most chick feeds are crumbles, so your birds likely will transition more easily to a feed in crumble form, rather than to a pellet.
  • Nutritional quality: You also want to make sure the new feed is nutritionally similar to or better than your chick feed. If you are feeding a high-quality chick feed, you should seek to maintain the same level of quality in your layer feed. Or better yet, find a layer feed that offers more and better nutrition. A shift to a lower-quality diet could affect the health of your birds at a critical time in their lives.

 

It’s important to transition to a layer ration that is similar to the chick starter you have been feeding. The similarity in texture and nutrients between Nutrena NatureWise Chick Starter Grower (left) and NatureWise Layer Crumble (right) can help your birds make the switch.

What are best practices for switching from chick diet to layer feed?

So how do you switch you birds from chick starter/grower to layer ration? The following are some tips that will help make the transition as easy as possible. You should always start by reading and following the instructions on the manufacturer’s label. Nutrena recommends starting the transition at 16 weeks, and your birds should have made the transition by 18 to 20 weeks. Your chickens may be just fine with this transition, but just in case, we recommend the following protocol.

  • Transition slowly: Mix 25% layer feed with 75% starter/grower feed for a week. Then change to 50% layer feed and 50% starter/grower feed, again for a week. Next, provide 75% layer feed and 25% starter/grower feed for a week. And then finally provide only layer feed.
  • Observe your birds: Monitor the birds closely. Check their crops, watch them eat, and check the feed levels to make sure they are eating. If they are not fed too many treats, layer hens should self-regulate their diet, eating about a quarter pound (1/2 cup) of food per bird per day. You may also want to weigh them every few days. You will need to adjust if there is any sign of weight loss.
  • Slow down the transition: If they stop eating or start losing weight, return to the previous percentages of new and old feed and continue for a few more days. Then try to increase the percentage, and continue increasing, but at a slower rate.
  • Observe nutritional needs: The layer feed should provide about 90% of your hens’ diet. Limit scratch and treats to no more than 10% of their diet. Feeding too many treats reduces the amount of nutrition your birds get from their feed. Limit treats to every few days, and then feed only about 2 tablespoons.
  • Be consistent: Your chickens need consistency, so provide them with fresh food and water at the same time each day, preferably morning and afternoon. They should have both feed and water available at all times.
  • Offer extras: Provide grit — small pieces of granite or other stones — to help them grind up their feed. Also offer oyster shell or limestone, which is slow-release calcium, as opposed to the calcium in their feed, which is absorbed quickly by the body. These supplements should be provided free choice, in separate dishes from the feed, and available at all times. The birds are self-regulating and will eat as much grit and oyster shell/limestone as they need.
  • Remember water: Fresh water is important to proper egg formation; eggs are mostly water. Make sure your birds have water at all times, even during the winter.
It’s important to observe your birds’ eating habits when you start a new feed.

How do I choose a layer ration?

How do you select a layer ration for your birds? First, think about your expectations for your birds and find a feed that will fit those needs. You have a number of options, from bare-minimum feeds that offer very basic nutrition to feeds that are finely crafted for top performance.

Pullets like this one need optimal nutrition to get their bodies in shape for laying.

For backyard flock owners, the goal is usually eggs. If this is your goal, choose a layer diet that will support your pullets as they make the transition to layers and prepare them to live healthy, productive lives. At the very least look for the minimum requirements of layer feed — 16% protein, 0.70% lysine, 0.30% methionine, 3.0% calcium, and 0.40% phosphorus.

Some premium feeds provide additional ingredients for optimal flock performance. For example, in addition to providing a solid nutritional foundation, Nutrena NatureWise includes the following:

  • Pre/probiotics support good bacteria, prevent colonization of bad bacteria, and aid with absorption of nutrients.
  • Yeast culture supports the immune system and gut microflora.
  • Essential oils are plant extracts that provide several benefits:
    • Provide nutrition to support healthy immunity
    • Maximize egg production
    • Support healthy digestion
    • Encourage healthy growth/bone formation
    • Enable superior eggshell strength
    • Enhance feed taste and freshness
  • Vitamin D3, an important vitamin related to calcium absorption, has the following roles:
    • Helps body absorb and use calcium
    • Improves hardness of eggshells
    • Supports stronger bones
    • Contributes to eggs that contain 37% more D3 than eggs from chickens fed a standard diet
  • Tagetes meal (Aztec marigold) helps the hens produce golden egg yolks.
  • Yucca schidigera extract reduces the amount of ammonia in your hens’ droppings, which minimizes coop odor.

 

Maximizing Meatbird Potential Through Nutrition

If you raise chickens for meat, you know the importance of diet in getting your birds to harvest weight in as little time as possible. Because meat birds (for example, Cornish cross or broilers) are harvested between 6 and 10 weeks of age, it’s important to rapidly maximize growth. A diet containing 22% protein may support this rapid development. Probiotics are another important key to high yield in a short time frame. Our new formulation adds essential oils that promote growth and flock health and yucca extract that helps reduces coop odors.

Why Probiotics for Meat Birds?

Proven research studies have found that probiotics help create a bigger bird in the same period of time. According to Dr. Gary Davis from North Carolina State University, quality probiotics “enhance nutrient utilization, uptake, and absorption…[and] an immune response in the bird’s gut. This is an excellent management tool to help birds fight off diseases.” Effective probiotics may include the following strains:

    • Lactobacillus acidophilus
    • Lactobacillus casei
    • Enteroccus faecium
    • Bifidobacterium thermophilum
Beneficial bacteria create a bigger bird during the same time period. These Cornish cross siblings of the same sex are 21 days old. They were fed a 22% protein diet with the following additives: left, no additives; middle, antibiotics; right, live, quality, stable probiotics. The probiotic difference is clear. (Image courtesy of Star-Labs.)

Diets containing high-quality, stable probiotics, such as NatureWise® Meatbird Feed, can boost the number of good gut bacteria, crowd out bad gut bacteria, increase nutrient absorption, and create a slightly acidic gut that favors good bacteria.

Why Essential Oils for Meat Birds?

Nutrena’s new, improved NatureWise® Meatbird Feed taps into the amazing powers of essential oils. These essential oils are distilled from leaves, flowers, stems, and roots. We’ve carefully formulated a combination of oregano, thyme, rosemary, star anise to promote digestion, growth, and a healthy immune system. These essential oils enhance the taste and freshness of the feed, resulting in better feed consumption. Chickens eating Nutrena NatureWise® feed showed more growth compared to chickens eating comparable amounts of other national brands. Finally, we’ve added yucca extract to our feeds. This phytogenic compound reduces the amount of ammonia in your birds’ droppings, meaning less odor in your coop.

oregano
Essential oils from thyme and other herbs contribute to better tasting feed and better growth.

See for Yourself!

Ask for new, improved NatureWise® Meatbird Feed with probiotics, essential oils, and yucca. It will support your birds’ health, healthy growth, muscle development, and livability—all without antibiotics. To maximize the potential of NatureWise® Meatbird Feed, follow these feeding instructions:

    • Provide as the sole ration from hatch to finish.
    • Free feed for the first three days, then use a 12-hours-on/12-hours-off feed rotation to prevent overeating.
    • Keep clean, fresh water available at all times.
    • Clean feeders and waterers regularly.

For more information on these probiotics and their benefits, see the post “Chicken Feeds: They’re not all the same.

Feeding Chickens in the Winter

If you are new to chickens or even an experienced chicken owner, understanding winter feeding can mean the difference between your flock surviving winter or losing some of your feathered friends. To learn more, listen in as Twain Lockhart, Nutrena Poultry Expert gives a rundown of the dos and don’ts of feeding chickens during winter.

The Chicken Digestive System and Immune System: An Important Partnership

By Jennifer Murtoff, Home to Roost LLC 

How are your chickens’ diet and their overall health connected?

Overview of Immune System

As humans, we rely on our immune systems every day to protect us from viruses, bacteria, toxins, and fungi. When this network of organs, cells, and proteins defeats a threat to our body, it makes a record of how to defend against the invader. The next time the body is faced with this particular attacker, the immune system can defeat it swiftly and efficiently.  

The chicken’s immune system functions in a similar way. It is also complex. Its main defenses are lymphoid organs, which produce, store, and carry cells that fight infection. The primary lymphoid organs in a chicken are the thymus and the bursa of Fabricius:

    • Thymus: This series of lymphatic lobes runs almost the whole length of the neck. It is similar to the thymus in humans.
    • Bursa of Fabricius: This organ is unique to birds and is located on top of the rectum. It forms a kind of pocket (the word bursa means “purse”) that contains folds of lymphoid tissue.

These two organs produce immune cells: the thymus produces T-cells and the bursa of Fabricius produces B-cells. These immune cells migrate to other areas in the body, including the Harderian gland, spleen, and bone marrow. However, more than 60% of these immune cells migrate to and reside in the various places in the digestive tract, including the cecal tonsils and Peyer’s patches. From these locations, they defend the body against invaders.  

In addition to hosting immune cells, the digestive system also contains other important components that support the chicken’s immune system. Beneficial microflora (bacteria and yeast) live in throughout the digestive tract. They provide important services, such as protecting the walls of the intestine from colonization by harmful bacteria. Scientists also think that the friendly microflora help keep the bird’s body on high alert for disease-causing organisms.

So, the immune system of a chicken includes both immune cells and beneficial microflora that are located in the digestive tract.

Benefits of a Diet That Supports the Immune System

You can help keep your chickens healthy by providing a high-quality, commercially formulated feed containing elements that are necessary for gut health. These include probiotics, prebiotics, yeast culture, and essential oils. These ingredients populate the gut with good microflora and can boost the immune system. Studies have shown that feeds formulated to boost the immune and digestive systems can result in better health and quality of life and improved egg production and quality. In addition, healthy chickens are less likely to harbor harmful bacteria in their reproductive tract, meaning safer eggs for you.

Finally, a diet that supports the immune system can increase absorption of nutrients from food by increasing the surface area of the intestine, meaning your birds will use their feed more efficiently. It also aids in digestion of calcium, which is important for strong eggshells and healthy bones.

In short, a chicken with a diet that supports a healthy immune system is a chicken that is both happy and productive, living her best life.

Support Your Chickens’ Immune Systems

Nutrena® NatureWise® Poultry feeds with FlockShield® and essential oils are specially formulated to support both the digestive system and the immune system for birds at every stage of life. They contain probiotics, prebiotics, yeast cultures, and essential oils that contribute to gut and immune system health. Choosing Nutrena NatureWise with Flockshield will help your birds live their best lives by improving their health, digestion, and productivity.

Weathering your first Winter with Chickens.

If you are new to raising chickens, you’ll need to know the basics to keep your hens healthy and safe through the cold days of winter. From whether to heat your coop or not, to how to keep your hens from feeling cooped up, Nutrena Poultry Expert Twain Lockhart has advice on winter care that will help you keep your birds safe, happy, and healthy.

Chickens and Horses

Learn about the symbiotic relationship between hens and horses and how when raised together they both win. Twain Lockhart, Nutrena Poultry Expert, explains how hens can help prevent horses from getting colic and more.

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