Archive for February 2012

Mareks Disease in Wake Forest?

Last week we had a former customer call us about a chicken in their flock that had
developed paralysis of a wing and was starting to struggle walking. My recommendation to
him was to take her to the state lab to have an analysis done. (We are in North Carolina.
Our state provides a valuable service in allowing anyone to bring up to 6 birds to be
autopsied and full lab panels done to help identify mysterious illness for a mere $30.)

Anytime a bird dies in your flock and you are unsure what has caused the death, it gives
great piece of mind to know what has caused the loss. If there is disease being passed, it
can be invaluable to saving the rest of your flock.

Well, our state lab confirmed my suspicions that our customer’s bird did in fact have Mareks.
Two things made this a surprising discovery. First, it is believed that Mareks is still a
relatively rare condition, particularly in small backyard flocks. Second, Since they bought
their flock from our hatchery, Little Birdie Hatchery, we know that his birds were vaccinated
for Mareks.

This to me, confirms our program of vaccinating all birds. Even though vaccination is not
100% effective (as this experience confirms,) because his flock is vaccinated, the other birds
in his flock will likely not be affected. Had they not been vaccinated, it is possible he would
have lost a significant portion of his flock.

It also confirms that with the growing popularity of backyard flocks, the likelihood of your
flock being exposed is becoming greater. According to the Merck Manual of Veterinary
Medicine, the virus for Mareks can travel up to 20 miles in the air. When backyard flocks
were a rare thing, outbreaks were easily confined. Not so anymore. There is hardly a place
in North Carolina where there is not at least one flock within every 20 mile radius of the

This opens the debate on vaccination programs for small hatcheries. At our hatchery, most
of the birds we sell are purchased from larger hatcheries as sexed pullets. Large hatcheries
have the economy of scale to offer this service most often for as little as .25 cents per bird.
For the small hatcheries however, it is not economically feasible. The smallest size that the
vaccine is available in is a 1000 dose vial. This must be shipped refrigerated, which adds
significantly to the cost. Also, once mixed, it is viable to only about 1 day. For a hatchery
like ours, which hatches no more than 100 birds in a week, it is just not feasible.

Now, am I saying you should only buy chicks from a source that can vaccinate? Absolutely
not. Even given the growing popularity of backyard flocks, the chance of seeing a bird
infected is still relatively small. Plus, even if your flock is exposed, not every bird will
become symptomatic. Even vaccinated birds can become symptomatic. But, if you have a
choice, the added protection is worth it.

Hopefully, in the next few years, suppliers of the vaccine will start selling in smaller dose
options. Until then, just be aware of the symptoms, and be prepared to cull if you see them
in one of your flock.

Building a Catawba Coop

Check out my first video project. One of the ways we funded the start up of our hatchery was by building these coops. This was a fun project. The stop motion video was an inspiration from ChemConnector, Tony Williams.

Proposed Legislation for Commercial Flocks

Before I form an opinion on the proposed legislation (H.R. 3798), that would increase the overall size requirements for commercial laying flocks, I want us to consider a few poins:

  • First, this legislation does not affect flocks that are 300 birds or less.  In other words, no affect on backyard flocks (unless some of you have a real obsession.)
  • Second, proposed legislation is to set minimum space per bird standards for the industry.  Currently, there are no minimum standards.  Most birds have floor space below 90 inches per bird.  So let’s use that as our baseline.
  • Third, currently, the US commercial layer flock is estimated at 280 million birds.  These birds basically provide the eggs for a US population of 300 million people.

The proposed legislation first sets a minimum standard for space.  It then phases in larger requirements from 90 square inches per bird to 124 inches for a white egg layer.  Let’s convert this to something we can visualize.  The American football field has approximately 8.4 million sq. in. in linear space. If the average space per bird is currently 90 sq. in., then a football field could hold 92,800 layers.  This means it would take about 3020 football fields to house the current US flock. If HR 3798 is passed minimum space requirements would mean that a football field could only hold 67, 400 layers.  This translates into 4150 football fields to hold the same flock.  That’s 1100 extra football fields.


Again, not saying I agree with caged birds.  Also, agreeing that 90 inches per bird seems like way too little.  But think of the economic impact on the cost of raising the US flock.  A 37% increase in size requirements will surely have an impact on cost of food, specifically eggs and the meat products from a retired flock.

I love my backyard flock.  Backyard flocks are becoming more normal again in America.  However, more normal or not, the majority of people in the US do not have the luxury of housing their own flock.  Remember those people who have no choice but to buy supermarket eggs.  These increases in size limits will at least increase the cost of eggs in a commensurate amount.

A Great Resource for Chicken Health

I found a great website offered by the USDA that offers a lot of information on Chicken Health: