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.
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.
I’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!