Before You Get Your Baby Chicks, You Should Read This

During this past week, I’ve been chatting with several people who are interested in raising chickens.  It’s that time of year – fruit trees are blooming, the weather has been beautiful, and if you dare to walk into a feed store, you’re sure to be tempted by the sweet chirp of baby chicks.  The day old birds are, without a doubt, one of the cutest things in the known universe, which is reason enough to get a few for pets.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how delicious real eggs taste, though, which is an even better reason to start a flock.

eggs

The logic sounds simple so far, right?

The next step gets really complicated.  Before you even purchase chicks, you need to decide whether or not to raise them following strict organic standards.  When you buy chicks from a hatchery, you’ll have the option to get them vaccinated before they’re shipped to you.  The chicks from the feed stores in our area are usually not vaccinated because the stores need to give customers the option to raise them organically.  (We live in Northern California; this may not hold true in other areas of the country).

If you don’t get vaccinated chicks, you have the option of giving them medicated starter feed.  Chicks that have already been vaccinated shouldn’t have medicated feed because it will counteract the vaccinations.  The medicated feed only helps prevent certain illnesses and does nothing to prevent others that the vaccination will cover.
chicken saladI’m 99.9% sure that anyone reading this blog will gravitate towards following the organic route. When we first got chickens, that was certainly what we did.  It seems obvious: antibiotics and vaccines seem like disgusting ingredients for an omelet.  A few years ago, we had an absolute disaster that made me realize that it’s not nearly as simple as you’d think…. It’s probably an important story to read for anyone thinking about getting a flock.

It was the first time that we’d decided to try getting a larger flock so we could sell eggs at the farmers market. Since we’re off the grid and don’t have a 24 hour power source, running a heat lamp for first six weeks of the chicks lives was virtually impossible. We found two different people on craigslist that sold pullets that we ready to be outside without the heat lamp.  We went to both farms and both seemed perfectly lovely.  The pullets were all healthy and happy.  We fed them organic feed and raised them up to egg laying age, and then………… they started dying. It wasn’t all at once, but we were having one or two hens die every week. They would look slow and lethargic for several days, then have trouble walking and standing up, and no matter how much tlc we gave them, they died.  Our coop was very clean, they had plenty of food and water and plenty of space to run around, and we were completely baffled why we were having so many problems.

Initially, none of our research really yielded any good answers, and most vets that we spoke with only worked with larger farm animals.  One morning, when I found another hen that was clearly suffering, who could barely stand and looked like she was having trouble breathing, I got fed up. I packed her into a box with some blankets and took her to the vet we use for our dogs because I had to do something.  When the vet saw her, he told me that she was far too sick to help, and we had to put her to sleep.  The vet office sent her body to UC Davis for testing to figure out what was going wrong.  (At this point in the story, I start losing any kind of farmer street cred that I may have had.  Who pays money to get a chicken put to sleep? Just wring their neck and it’s done.  It was a weird morning, what can I say…)

Holding a frail, sick hen in my arms while she died was about the most awful thing ever. I left the vet office in tears, drove across the street and parked under some trees near the hardware store, where I sat and cried for an embarrassingly long time.  I felt sick to my stomach that all of these animals in my care were dying.

When we got the test results back from UC Davis, my suspicions were confirmed: the hen had Marek’s Disease.  Marek’s is something can a hen can carry for a long time and seem completely healthy, but then will flare up during a stressful period.  For our flock, the trigger was the transition into egg-laying.  If one hen had it, the whole flock was definitely carrying it.  There’s no treatment and it has a 90% fatality rate. Once Marek’s flares up, it’s a slow and painful way for a hen to die.  They become more and more lethargic, and then experience asymmetrical paralysis, meaning the hen will lose use of half of her body.  A hen that’s dying of Marek’s will often have one droopy wing and one leg that’s limp and outstretched. Eventually the hen won’t be able to breathe and dies.  UC Davis told us that the only way to get rid of it in our coop was to “depopulate” the flock, clean the coop, and leave it empty for several months.

The crazy thing in all of this? When you order day old chicks from the hatchery, there’s a little box you can click on the order form, and for a couple extra bucks you can get all of them vaccinated for Marek’s (along with several other diseases) when they’re a day old.  It’s not organic at all, but it would have prevented the whole nightmare we went through with our hens.  We’re still not sure how we ended up with Marek’s in our flock, but it was almost certainly because one of the farms I got our birds from had it in their flock.  This was the point where we decided: we will always raise our own chicks, even if it’s a total pain in the butt doing it off the grid, and we will always get them vaccinated from the hatchery.  After that we feed them organic grains, and I just figure that by the time the six months have passed for them to start laying eggs there can’t be much medication left in their system.

If you’re wondering about our doomed flock, we didn’t have the heart to kill all of them the way UC Davis recommended.  The chickens that hadn’t gotten sick yet were still happy and healthy, so we let them hang out with us until the disease flared up, when we would take matters into our own hands and put them out of their misery.  It was really depressing, but it seemed like the nice thing to do.

I’m sure other people have had different experiences raising chickens.  Most people don’t end up with the mess that we had. This was the single most important lesson we’ve ever learned about chicken farming, though, and I hope that sharing it helps other people make conscious decisions about their farming methods.  Things are not always as black and white as they seem, unfortunately, and animal husbandry can be a lot more intense than growing some tomatoes in your backyard garden.

 

P.S. I still would rather raise them organically, so if you have a good solution…. please tell me!

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21 responses to “Before You Get Your Baby Chicks, You Should Read This

  1. Thank you for sharing your sad, but real story! It’s so hard to try to figure out what to do right by you, AND the animals you are going to care for when it comes to vaccinations. When we got our first batch of chicks, we decided to get them vaccinated against Marek’s. I didn’t want to be eating eggs that were infested with antibiotics, but I figured that little dose at hatching to keep them healthy was worth it, and would for the most part be out of their systems by the time they hit egg laying stage. My hens are all healthy, they free range, lay eggs, scratch for bugs, till up the compost pile. They’re pretty happy and healthy. So I’m glad we decided on that one little vaccination at the start of their lives. We are at the year mark on our first batch of birds. Next year, I want to add a few more birds to the flock to help offset the inevitable egg decline as the other ladies near 2 years old, and am thinking that I may hatch my own eggs from my own chickens. Just to give it a go. While it may be more convenient to just add ready to lay pullets to the flock, I don’t want to take the risk of hurting the current ladies with any new disease being added. There is a mini incubator on the Christmas wish list now! My how things change!

  2. Good to know…I’ve been wanting to keep a few urban chickens so we can have “fresh from the garden” eggs too. Thanks for sharing that cautionary tale!

  3. This is such great information and something I’d not yet considered. My husband and I have been going back and forth about my desire to have a few laying hens. The source of our disagreement is something others may want to consider in advance as well: what happens to the hens once they stop laying.

    I know myself well enough to be aware that as soon as I feed them, they become pets. There is no way I will be able to slaughter them once their laying days are over. Until he and I can come to an agreement on having pet chickens, I’ll keep buying my eggs from my CSA farmers.

  4. So sorry for the loss of your flock and a good point for future chicken owners to consider. I’m not savvy on what constitutes “organic” eggs, but I do know (I work in immunology) that any vaccination will only be present in chickens (or humans who get vaccinations) for 1-2 weeks. The antibodies that the chickens will develop to give immunity will be life-long, but the actual vaccination ingredients only last a short while.

  5. I understand that if you feed your chickens the right way they can lay for 8 to 10 years, so you don’t have to worry about what to do with them when they “stop.”

  6. A very similar issue is covered in Pastured Poultry by Joel Salatin. Although, it happened to him with younger chicks. I think it was a riboflavin deficiency. Anyways, it’s a great book about raising chickens without antibiotics and medicines.

  7. I opted to buy Marek’s-vaccinated day old chicks last year, but was torn with the decision. After reading your post, I’m glad I did. My 3 city chickens free range in my back yard, and are raised on Scratch and Peck. They keep the grass nicely trimmed, and well-fertilized, and are pets that help earn their keep. I’d be devastated if disease struck my girls.

  8. We too have been thinking about a backyard flock (2-3 hens). Thank you for sharing your story and for all the comments. So sorry you had to go through all that.

  9. Thanks for sharing this important info. I would have never thought to ask if the chicks are vaccinated. Did they have this Marek’s in our parent’s time?

  10. This is an awesome site. The sad parts are poignant, the writing is engaging, and the photos are amazing. Thank you.
    Marjorie Stradinger
    http://www.spinningstrawintogold.blogspot.com
    http://www.citycites.net
    http://www.lunchwithmajorie.com

  11. Vaccines are actually allowed in organic production, though I get what you mean by it not being “organic.” Medicated feed is just to take care of coccidiosis, though, not Mareks. You can get your chicks vaccinated for coccidiosis, but few hatcheries offer it and honestly, proper management is enough to keep it at bay without having to use medicated feed. When I teach chicken classes I always stress how important it is to get chicks vaccinated for Mareks. Since you are in Nor Cal, I just have to ask, did you get your pullets from a lady named Joan? I know several people that have and they lost their entire flocks to Mareks. It was actually so bad that the USDA got involved.

    Oh, and also, next time you or anyone in California, have a hen that dies from unknown causes (and you own fewer than 1,000 birds) you can send them to UC Davis for a free necropsy.

  12. rachel, it’s funny that you ask! yes, i DID get my chicks from joan. I’m probably the reason that the USDA got involved, since I sent a bird in to UC Davis. Also, because I was really mad that all my hens died and all my friend’s hens also died too (I’d referred someone to her because I’d had good luck in previous years). that year was SO frustrating.

  13. This is true it is very important to vaccinate against Mareks!!! My birds are my pets and I don’t let the quest to be all organic over shadow that at times vaccines are needed and to save a life antibotics are ALSO at times needed. I can be 100% organic and have a 100% dead bird because I refused to use antibotics. Sometimes these things are needed to save lives. I personally would rather save a life then say yes I am 100% organic
    I love my birds and they are my pets and id do what ever is possible to save their lives!

  14. Can baby chicks get u sick

  15. Yes, same thing happened to us – we had 7 lovely pullets. First one died about 9 months, with Merek’s. We’ve got another one that is wasting away currently at about 10 months. It looks like it’s going to slowly move through our flock. :(

    I had no idea about this before I bought our chickens – am resentful of the farm we got them from, but also understand their decision to not vaccinate (I guess). The thing I’m most upset about now is my whole yard has been exposed to Merek’s, and I have to seriously think about what to do with my next chickens after these all die off. I guess go with vaccinated chicks or pullets and hope for the best.

    I wish I had seen your article before I ordered my chicks!

  16. I just got my 19 one day old chicks, they all have Marek’s disease vaccinated from Hatchery Co. The 1st chick died 1 day after arrived because
    of blindness and could not see food or water to eat or drink, now 4 more have signs of Marek’s disease like weak feet couldn’t stand and wings spread out , mouth opened trying to breath, I called the Hatchery they told me I have to gave them medicated food which I didn’t want to, but I hope to
    save the rest. I wonder why they still got sick with this vaccine and died.

    • I’m not sure you have Mareks. Usually that’s a disease that appears a little bit later on in their life, not when they’re tiny chicks. I would recommend calling the hatchery and speaking with them; they might have some suggestions.

  17. Thank you for your story. We also try to remains organic and got our laying hens vaccinated, but attempted to do our meat birds au natural. We purchase baby chicks from a hatchery and raised 25 healthy birds until about 9 weeks old. Then, suddenly they began slowly dying as well. In the end we lost all the birds and were at a total loss for the money, feed, and time we invested. We had to buy chicken from the grocery store for the whole year because of our disaster. Now, I will vaccinate. Raising them on my own still provides a way better outcome for the animal, the consumer, and the land. I order my chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery and their website states that their vaccinations are in compliance with organic standards.

  18. I wanted to have a small flock of backyard hens to care for. Same thing-as soon as they hit egg laying age they all started dying. Itis so heartbreaking. I’m down to one hen and dont know if I should just put her down before I decide to get vaccinated birds. Your blog was really helpful and comforting that someone else has been through the same thing.

    • When it happened to me, UC Davis said that I needed to kill all the infected birds, clean the coop and leave it empty for six weeks before I got any new chickens. I know it’s such a straggle trying to decide what to do with the infected birds that still seem healthy! I’m sorry you had this happen. Glad my post helped though.

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