3/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent
HARTLY, Del. — When you think of chicken flocks in Delaware, you think of modern houses filled with thousands of broiler chicks growing fat and tasty in only a few weeks.
Poultry is big business not just in Delaware, but all over Delmarva. The latest economic figures from 2012 show that 9,170 jobs in Delaware are related directly to the poultry industry, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry. The direct economic impact in Delaware is more than $2.6 billion.
But there is a smaller, lesser-known side to poultry farming in Delaware. There are some 800 small backyard flocks registered with Delaware’s Department of Agriculture.
Small farmers all over Delaware keep a handful of birds. Some are raised for eggs or meat. Others are more pet than poultry.
A backyard flock informational seminar held on Tuesday, March 12, provided people with some common sense guidelines for keeping those small flocks healthy and happy.
The Delaware Department of Agriculture sponsored the seminar and dozens of people came out to learn more about poultry disease and ways to protect their small backyard flocks.
Delaware State Veterinarian Dr. Heather Hirst said she expects the seminar to become an annual event.
It’s an important topic in Delaware, where a disease like avian influenza could have devastating impacts on Delaware agriculture, including trade restrictions on poultry sales.
Speakers told the audience that following some basic guidelines will dramatically reduce potential disease problems for their flocks. Those include limiting access to your flock, limiting contact with other flocks, limiting contact with wild birds and keeping water clean.
“It’s not rocket science,” joked Dr. Nathaniel Tablante.
Tablante, associate professor at the University of Maryland, urged farmers to wash their hands, wear clean footwear and keep a logbook of visitors, if practical.
“Biosecurity, that really is the key,” said Dr. Jo Anna Quinn, USDA Veterinary Services poultry specialist.
Quinn said that it’s best to keep birds isolated and separate. For example, keep domestic ducks away from chickens. But she added that those are “ideal world” conditions that don’t always exist for small backyard flock owners.
Farmers were told to start with chicks from a reputable company and to only have their birds vaccinated for diseases that are found in their region. Vaccinating for other diseases could actually introduce the disease because of live vaccines.
A USDA handout describes the best way to protect your birds as a six-point plan: keep your distance, keep it clean, don’t haul disease home, don’t borrow disease from your neighbors, know the warning signs of disease and report sick birds.
The following are some of the potential signs of an infectious bird disease: lack of energy and poor appetite, a drop in egg production or laying soft eggs, watery green diarrhea, sneezing, coughing or nasal discharge, swelling around the eyes, neck and head.
Farmers were urged to control rodents like mice because they can carry disease, to dispose of poultry litter properly and to keep nesting boxes, food and cages clean.
Farmers can bring chickens at no cost to the University of Delaware Lasher Laboratory west of Georgetown for testing.
“Early detection and reporting is the most important step in eradicating a disease outbreak. Don’t be afraid of crying wolf,” states a Department of Agriculture brochure.
Questions from the audience included whether it is acceptable to feed birds whole wheat bread, spaghetti or other table scraps.
That’s just fine, according to the experts, but it’s important to give your birds a balanced ration.
One speaker asked if bird droppings from wild birds could cause disease. She was told that it’s always best to keep poultry separate from gamebirds or waterfowl.
Another question from the audience was if older chickens in your flock should be destroyed. They may be well past their peak productivity, but chickens can live for seven or eight years.
The answer from the experts was to “keep them if they make you happy.”
The Lasher Laboratory can be reached at 302-856-2585, extension 702. Farmers can call the USDA Veterinary Services Office at 1-866-536-7593. The Office of the State Veterinarian can be reached after hours by calling 302-233-1480.
For more information about biosecurity, visit www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health.