Let's start at the beginning.
What is biosecurity?
It may sound challenging but it's actually very simple.
Biosecurity is putting in place ways of protecting your chickens from disease.
For poultry farms it can become complex and potentially costly. For us as backyard chicken keepers, it's really a case of "informed common sense".
In other words, finding out what's a threat to our chickens' health, and putting in place ways of helping control it.
It doesn't take lots of money. It takes a purposeful mindset and an agreement from everyone involved with your flock that they will take it seriously.
In 2020, we learned from bitter experience how far and how quickly disease can spread. Practicing biosecurity with our chickens is part of the solution to specific diseases which can spread between chicken flocks.
Having biosecurity solutions in place will:
Put simply, biosecurity is taking steps to make sure we have healthy families, that animals and plants don't get sick, that our flock's health is optimised, and that we prevent conditions which mean disease is more likely to spread.
By adopting what are essentially common-sense processes into our chicken-keeping, we can make sure our flocks and our families are kept as safe as they possibly could be.
One of the main sources of disease for poultry is migrating birds, particularly waterfowl.
Those birds can introduce the particularly virulent diseases like Avian Influenza (bird flu) and Newcastle disease.
Although bird flu often starts in its "low pathogenic" form, it can (and often does) develop into "highly pathogenic", where the mortality rate in chicken flocks within 48 hours is 100%.
Other common sources of disease include flying insects such as mosquitoes and flies, animals, in particular rodents, and dirty coops and equipment both on our own property and, importantly, transferred from other people.
The types of disease can be bacterial, like e.coli, salmonella, fowl cholera and Mycoplasma; viral such as Marek's; fungal as in Candiasis and some eye infections; and protozoan, for example Coccidiosis.
We're also talking about a need to control common parasites like mites and worms.
No. Many of the reports and studies you'll find are written with large-scale poultry farms in mind. Clearly those which adopt unhygienic practices, apart from damaging the welfare of the chickens, are more risky than the small flocks of the backyard chicken keeper.
The majority of us would genuinely do anything to keep our chickens safe.
But disease can easily be carried into backyard flocks as well as commercial operations. It can also affect school incubating and hatching projects, for example.
The measures we put in place just need to be adapted for a smaller scale, and proportionate to the risks.
As the saying goes, there's no need too take a sledgehammer to crack a nut!
How to ensure you're practicing good biosecurity measures for your chickens?
If you want a quick answer, it has to be "cleanliness". Which can mean anything from washing your hands before and after handling your chickens, to full-scale cleaning out of your coop and run.
Let's break it down into eight smaller, manageable tasks. It's preferable to read through them all, but if you want information about one in particular, here are links to each section.
This should be your number 1 priority. Most avian diseases, in particular avian influenza, are transmitted through the air by wind, water and feathers.
Which makes migrating wild birds, particularly waterfowl like swans and geese, a major contributor - but not the only one.
Disease can also be carried by other wild birds. It can be left in droppings, feathers, infected eggs and as droplets in the very air they exhale.
So having that cute wild bird feeder near your coop may be asking for trouble - and not only from birds...
Rats and mice are known carriers of micro-organisms. The common belief that "where there are chickens, you'll find rats" is not true.
What is true, though, is that where there's grain, you'll find rodents. They have an amazing sense of smell, they can jump three feet from a standing start, they'll gnaw through anything but a good quality metal and they eat 10% of their body weight every day.
And as well as munching their way through your hens' eggs, which they will if they can, they carry such diseases as Salmonellosis and Leptospirosis.
Sooner or later, most backyard chicken keepers want more chickens than they thought they would when they started out.
All good - the more chickens, the better!
But whether you get yours from a friend, a reputable breeder, a poultry show, a hatchery or your local feed store, you'll need to take precautions when integrating new chickens into your existing flock.
Why? Because you have no idea whether the new stock has already been exposed to some illness.
This should go without saying. Disease spreads much more easily and quickly where hygiene and cleanliness are poor.
Chickens are not cats. They don't clean up after themselves. So you have to take responsibility and do it for them.
Always bear in mind that micro-organisms can survive for weeks and some, such as Coccidiosis, for months. Flies will be attracted to dirty bedding and can carry more than 600 pathogens harmful to poultry(4).
Food and water can both be an important source of contamination. The quality of drinking water in particular is critical: dirty water potentially hosts both bacteria and fungal slime.
Yes, I know chickens drink from puddles when they get the chance. But it's the cleanliness of the water carriers that's the important task here.
All research studies about the transmission of disease agree that one of the most serious threats to biosecurity is people.
Disease-causing viruses and bacteria have been found on human clothing, shoes, skin and hair(5).
Farm equipment too - tractors, lorries, trucks and any vehicles or crates used to transport birds - are also potential carriers.
So whether it's family members, friends and neighbours, service and delivery personnel or paying guests, movement in and out of your chicken coop and run, or homestead if you have one, should be seriously restricted.
It's often hard to tell when chickens are unwell. They hide illness because it's potentially fatal to allow predators to see they're weak.
So it's important to be aware of possible signs of disease. Early detection can help reduce the impact and spread of disease both within your own flock. And it reduces the likelihood of cross-spreading to others.
Watch for signs of disease in your flock by checking your flock every day, simply as you go about your business in the coop and run.
Clinical signs associated with the possibility of disease in a poultry flock are:
Good nutrition goes a long way to helping prevent disease taking hold. It's an essential part of your biosecurity strategy.
It's always much more beneficial for you and for your chickens to prevent disease than to rely on treatment. And healthy, unstressed birds have a more effective immune system to protect against disease.
It may seem like there are a lot of things to remember about biosecurity, and it should certainly be considered, planned and implemented.
Because detecting disease early and managing its spread is, as we have all discovered, critical to our own health and safety as well as that of our chickens, pets and other livestock.
At the end of the day, though, it's not difficult. It's all about keeping your chickens and their surroundings clean, safe and as free from the stresses of chicken life as you can make it.
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.
The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.
Some of the sources I have used in this article are these.
1. National Farmers' Union, UK: Avian Influenza webinar. Aired October 2020.
2. Biosecurity and Disease. Pub. The Poultry Cooperative Research Centre, 2019.
3. deGraft Hanson, Dr J: Biosecurity for Backyard Flocks. Pub. West Virginia University, 2002.
4. US Department of Agriculture: Flies and Salmonella - a Bad Combo in Poultry Houses. Pub. Science Daily, 2008.
5. US Department of Agriculture: Biosecurity: Defend the Flock. Pub. 2020.
6. Fairchild, Professor B, and Cunningham, D: Biosecurity Basics for Poultry Growers. Pub. University of Georgia, Department of Poultry Science, 2006; reviewed and updated 2020.
7. Khalid, Dr M: Biosecurity measures for poultry farms. Pub. University of Lahore, Department of Veterinary Sciences, 2017.
8. McElroy, Dr A: Biosecurity for Poultry. Pub. University of Texas, Department of Poultry Science, 2014.