The Importance of Keeping a Closed Flock of Backyard Chickens

October 26, 2017

The longer I keep chickens, the more I realize that my decision early on to keep a "closed flock" has been the right one. I hear and read so many heartbreaking stories about someone who adds adult chickens to their flock and next thing they know they have sick (or dying) birds on their hands. My chickens are super healthy, and while I accredit that mainly to a strict regiment of preventive, herbal immune system boosting and good genes, i.e. only getting stock from a reputable source, I also know that not bringing adult birds into my flock is likely the biggest reason my chickens never get sick.

A thirty-day quarantine period is the rule of thumb when you introduce new chickens from an outside source. This, in theory, gives you time to monitor and assess the newcomers to assure they are healthy before letting them mingle with your current flock. The problem with that is that there are a couple of diseases that are asymptomatic, or certain birds can be carriers but not necessarily be affected themselves. MG (or Mycoplasma gallisepticum) and the avian flu are two examples of this. And trust me, you don't want either of these to infect your chickens! Since it's in the news almost daily now, it's worth mentioning that salmonella is also often asymptomatic.

So What Exactly is a Closed Flock?

Keeping a closed flock means that you don't add any juvenile or adult chickens to your flock. In my case, it means hatching my own chicks from hatching eggs that I get from a reputable hatchery with an NPIP certification. If you keep a rooster, you can easily expand your flock internally ...and almost indefinitely, although I do think that bringing in new blood from time to time is important, despite the fact that inbreeding isn't really an issue with chickens like it might be for certain other types of animals  - or people!

Keeping a closed flock can also mean acquiring days-old chicks from a feed store, breeder or hatchery. Since the chicks will be separated under heat in a brooder for weeks and weeks, and sick chicks don't generally live for more than a few days, you can be pretty certain that any chicks raise that survive to the point where they can go outside are healthy. Although the NPIP certification is voluntary, all the major hatcheries have the certification. If you are planning on purchasing from a private breeder, be sure to ask about their certification. Most hatcheries also offer vaccinations for chicks being shipped out, if that's something of interest to you. (It's important to note that I have never had any of my chicks vaccinated.)

Good Biosecurity

Deliberately deciding not to introduce adult chickens to your flock is the linchpin of a closed flock, since many chicken diseases can be transmitted through feces, feathers or by air or direct contact with infected rodents or wild birds, biosecurity is super important as well. Simple things like not hanging wild bird feeders near your coop, covering your run to prevent wild birds from entering, and wearing dedicated footwear to care for your chickens etc. are all important, but of equal importance is limiting your contact with other chicken keepers - at least around your coop area. 
I don't encourage anyone with chickens of their own to visit my chickens, and if they do, they generally aren't allowed inside our run. We keep extra pairs of rubber boots in various sizes for anyone who needs them.

I don't wear my chicken boots off our property - and most certainly not to the feed store. Just walking through a store that someone else with chickens has been walking around can transmit pathogens from their footwear to the floor to your footwear and ultimately back to your coop.



Avoid Coop Tours, Shows and Swaps

I don't participate in coop tours (worst biosecurity nightmare ever!) which are basically groups of chicken keepers traveling from one coop to another, and likely spreading all kinds of pathogens and germs as they go. I don't attend poultry shows or swaps - and would never buy a chicken at one. Even though the chickens being shown all have to be tested (for some things, not for every possible infectious disease), the number of people coming through those events pretty much guarantees that someone is going to be bringing in some type of pathogen with them. And while most sellers at swaps are responsible, some aren't - they often might not even realize that their chicken is carrying something.

I have received way too many tearful email from readers over the years about either showing chickens and ending up infecting their flock when they bring that chicken home, or buying a chicken at a show or swap and bringing it home and while it "looked healthy", it ends up transmitting some awful disease to the rest of their flock. 

The most heartbreaking email I got was from a woman several years ago. Her daughter's Salmon Faverolle had won the Blue Ribbon at their state fair. They brought the prize-winning chicken home, their daughter's favorite, and within 24 hours it was dead. Even worse, their other chickens were all showing signs of respiratory distress. 

Obviously, I recommended they have a necropsy done on any deceased chickens, and have the others tested by their vet or state university or avian lab. It's impossible to make a decision about treating or culling without complete and accurate information and a diagnosis from a medical professional.



Err on the Side of Caution


I don't mean to be an alarmist, but to me, the risk is just too great to take any chances. With antibiotics coming off the shelves and only available by prescription, it's not so easy anymore to treat a sick flock, and some of the worst infectious diseases don't have any cure anyway.So, a closed flock it is for me. For nearly the last decade, my chickens have been healthy and I haven't had any issues with sickness or death in my flock. I just couldn't bear to lose one - or all of them, which is a very real scenario with some of the non-treatable infectious diseases - just to bring home the "flavor of the month": that one chicken I just have to have.

Now with all that said, I myself do sell, and give away and rehome chickens from my flock periodically. The unwanted multiple roosters I end up hatching, the hen that lays eggs in a disappointing shade, those that end up not being my absolute favorites... And I guess I am a bit of a hypocrite that way, telling people not to add adult chickens to their flock and then giving them mine! 

But I know that my chickens are healthy and I also know that I am responsible enough to contact anyone who had bought or been given one if I did ever have an outbreak of any sickness in my flock, since there's a good chance that pathogen was festering well before any symptoms came to light and I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't contact those who had taken some of my chickens....just in case.In short, it's super important to me to keep my girls as healthy as I can. Maybe it's a bit of luck, but I certainly do believe in keeping a closed flock. I recommend thinking long and hard before adding adult chickens to your flock.

Sidenote: While some experts recommending housing chickens and ducks separately, I have kept them together in the same coop and run since 2009 and never experienced any issues other than the random duck thinking it's funny to go around "goosing" the chickens! Again, boosting immune systems and starting with healthy stock is of utmost importance.

Further reading:
Merck Vet Manual - Common Infectious Diseases
Smallholder Series: Closed Flock or Herd
http://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/files/201395.pdf
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/122892

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