Increasingly, veterinarians at small animal practices in urban and suburban areas are finding that their clients are looking to them for information about poultry. Many mistakes that small flock poultry growers make are due to lack of knowledge and/ or false assumptions. Following the simple guidelines below can prevent a lot of problems for small flock growers.

1. Temperature

Baby poultry are not able to regulate their body temperature and must have a warm environment. Their environment must be kept at 95 degrees F for the first week of life and then decreased five degrees per week until an environmental temperature of 70 degrees is reached.

Watching how baby poultry relate to their heat source will indicate their comfort level. If they are huddled under the heat source, they are cold. If they are as far away as possible from the heat source, they are too hot. Being scattered throughout their environment demonstrates they are comfortable. Feed and water should be placed far enough away from the heat source that hot birds will find it and near enough to the heat source that cold birds can find it. It is usually a good idea not to place feed and water directly under the heat source.

If young poultry become chilled, they often develop diarrhea. If close attention is not paid, manure will cling to the feathers around the birds’ vent (anus) and form a plug which causes the bird to die from cloacal impaction. The plug can be removed easily with warm water.

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2. Feed

Always start baby chickens and turkeys with medicated feed for the first six weeks of life. This feed includes amprolium. Amprolium is not an antibiotic. Amprolium blocks the uptake of thiamine in coccidia which prevents the disease coccidiosis. After 6 weeks, feed should be gradually changed from 100% medicated to 100% non-medicated over a period of 10 days. The gradual changeover allows the birds to develop immunity to coccidia and thus also prevents the disease.

Coccidiosis in chickens and turkeys will typically cause diarrhea, often bloody, and in some instances cause a death loss in the flock. Finding coccidial oocysts on fecal floatation of a normal healthy flock does not indicate the presence of disease and therefore does not warrant treatment. While ducks, geese, and guinea hens don’t require coccidiosis prevention, game birds such as pheasants, quail, and chukkar partridges do.

Begin feeding layer mash, the feed given to chickens that are laying eggs, when the first egg is found. Layer mash should not be given to birds that are not laying eggs. Calcium level in layer mash is about 4% while in other rations it is slightly less than 1%. Supplemental sources of calcium, such as oyster shells, should be provided, free choice, to older laying hens since it helps maintain the egg shell quality in the later stages of production.

Broiler (meat type) chicks should not be fed turkey starter. Broiler chickens grow so rapidly that if they have a more concentrated diet (turkey starter versus chicken starter), they will develop growth problems which often result in heart failure and ascites (water belly). To keep growth of broilers to a moderate pace, they should go without food for a period of at least eight hours per day. The easiest way to do that is to make sure they have eight hours of darkness at night so they sleep and do not eat 24 hours a day.

3. Light

The typical lighting program for all poultry is to start them at 24 hours of light for the first week of life. This allows baby poultry to find the feed and water. For broiler chickens, one hour or more of darkness should be added each subsequent week until 8 hours of darkness is reached. For egg laying chickens, two hours of darkness should be added per week and then 12 hours of darkness should be maintained until they are 10 weeks of age. After 10 weeks of age, 15 minutes of light should be added each week thereafter until reaching 16 hours of light. Decreasing the length of light will cause the birds to go out of egg production. To have eggs in the winter, light will need to be added at the beginning or end of the day to maintain 16 hours of light. A 40 watt bulb is all that is needed for a 10 foot by 10 foot area.

4. Vaccinations

The only vaccination necessary for chickens is Marek’s disease. Marek’s vaccine is typically given when birds are hatched. The best vaccine is provided at hatcheries since it is stored in liquid nitrogen. Chickens are not automatically vaccinated at hatcheries and buyers must request that their chicks be vaccinated.

For people that hatch their own chicks, a freeze-dried vaccine, MD-Vac CFL, is available from Zoetis. Unfortunately, it is only available in 1,000 dose vials. Once mixed, the virus only lives for two hours so the remaining doses cannot be stored for later use.

The only other vaccine for chickens and turkeys is pox vaccine which is given at six to eight weeks of age. Pox vaccine should be given if pox is in the local area. The pox vaccine is given in the wing web (skin between the humerus and radius) in chickens and in the legs of turkeys.

Do NOT vaccinate chickens for infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT). Unfortunately, the vaccine for ILT that is readily available on the internet is a modified live virus that can spread to non-vaccinated chickens and cause disease. This vaccine has caused many issues at fairs and exhibitions. The only ILT vaccine that should be used is a genetically modified pox vaccine, Vectormune® FP LT manufactured by Ceva Animal Health. That vaccine protects the chickens from both pox and ILT. There is no chance of the vaccine causing disease in other chickens because it only contains the protective portion of the ILT virus and not the complete virus.

5. Parasites

Small flocks should be treated for worms twice a year: once in the fall before they are brought inside for the winter and again just before they are allowed outside in the spring. The only approved drug for parasites in egg laying chickens is SAFE-GUARD® Aquasol For Chickens (fenbendazole) by Merck Animal Health which is given in the drinking water at one mg/kg for five days.

6. Safe Separation

Baby poultry should not be raised in the living quarters of humans, especially not in bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. Do not kiss or cuddle baby poultry. Children and adults should wash their hands with soap and water after handling poultry. Too many people get sick with salmonella each year because they don’t follow these suggestions.

As a word of caution, chickens and turkeys should not be raised together since chickens harbor disease agents that are asymptomatic in chickens but cause overt disease in turkeys. In addition, new poultry should not be added to existing flocks without observing them for hidden diseases. Chickens often harbor disease agents that cause overt disease when they are mixed with non-infected chickens