Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Diseases, Dilemmas, Decisions (and Predator Problems)

OK dear customers, at the end of this post, I'll discuss what all of this means to you, but in the meantime, I have some lessons on poultry disease and predation...

First, we'll start with a definition:

BIOSECURITY:  a system of practices used to reduce the spread of disease and illness in an agricultural practice.

This word embodies why we won't take stray animals on the farm anymore, why we need to try to allow our birds to free-range, while also having ways to isolate birds that are ill from birds that are healthy, and how we can try to keep a healthy flock of birds for breeding, laying and meat production. We haven't done this in the past, and are paying dearly for it now.  So, let's go back two years and discuss:

Two years ago, we noticed some of our birds getting sick. It was spread across meat birds, egg layers and turkeys. By the time we saw the symptoms, we did some quick research and started giving antibiotics to the sick birds. We separated them, but nothing was working. We eventually got a correct diagnosis, that our birds have a disease called Mycoplasma.

To be specific, we have both Mycoplasma Gallisepticum and Mycoplasma Synoviae in our flock. We learned that the broad spectrum antibiotics sold at most feed supply stores don't touch this illness. We have to buy a tylosin antibiotic, which is only available from a few online sources. We found it, treated the birds and those that weren't too sick, got better. That year, we lost over 50% of our meat birds, 50% of our turkeys and 30% of our egg layers. The ones that survived were stunted and either didn't grow to full size, or didn't lay as many eggs as suspected. When you are sick, you too, slow down, as your body spends its energy fighting the illness and not doing other things for you.  Our meat and egg production was severely stunted, and it was a tough year on the farm. By winter, when the meat birds and most of the turkeys had been processed, we were left with those birds that were able to survive the illness, we saw no more active symptoms and thought we were good to go.

The following spring, we started again with meat bird production as well as replacing most of our egg flock, with 300 more egg layers. Several weeks after the first batch of baby birds left the brooder, they started showing symptoms. This time we were ready with the correct medicine, and corrected the issue. But what we discovered (that we hadn't learned the year before) is that once you have this illness, much like chicken pox, you still carry it. Those birds that appeared healthy were spreading this illness to my new baby birds, who had no immunity to it. We started the rounds of medication again. This time, our research led us to understand that the only way to rid ourselves of this illness is to eliminate every bird from our flock. Every one of them.  Since I had just brought in 300 new egg layers (some of which we lost to the illness) and it would take them 6 months to start laying an egg, I couldn't butcher them before they even produced a single egg for me, so we decided to wait.

That brings us to this year. We knew we would see the illness again, and we are seeing it now. We also know that this virus does not live outside its host for more than a few days. We have to butcher every bird on the property. Every single one of them. That is going to happen this fall. We will go all winter with no birds. This will give us time to sanitize all their spaces - brooders, coops, egg boxes, etc. It will allow sunshine and snow to clean up the pasture and grassy areas they live in. It will give us a fresh start next spring.

On top of that, our predators have gotten more aggressive this year, too. We have coyotes that are hunting in broad day light, and all night long. I hear them at night all the time, they don't even run when I come by, and due to the proximity of houses and other livestock, we are unable to safely shoot at them. We also have an owl that is hunting our meat birds. That owl gets one bird every single night. We are considering putting up nets to get in his way. But he's so quiet, my dogs don't hear him.  My dogs seem to be very set in protecting our sheep right now, likely because they are pregnant. They sleep near the sheep. The other morning, I heard the coyote on the pond (we have lost a total of 7 ducks this year, 3 of them being in the last week ALONE). So there he was, on the pond, howling away, trying to alert his pack... the pond is outside of our fence, where my dogs can't get at them. Atlas and Goliath had their BACK to him (facing the sheep) and were laying there, silent. Moose, on the other hand, had squeezed out of the gate, and way laying near the pond, also not barking or anything. I have no idea why that coyote was still there. Once I shined a light on him, he took off for home. I have found several piles of feathers at the chicken truck, probably when the pond coyote was howling away, his friends could sneak to the other coop to grab chickens since my dogs weren't budging from their sheep. This year has been a bad year for predators as well.

So here is where you come in - what does all of this mean to our customers?

First, it has meant that for the last 3 years our egg production has been lower than expected. That is continuing through this year as well, even though we don't see any egg layers that are actively sick, they still carry the virus. The stoutest birds have endured the illness for more than one year now. Some of the younger birds that hadn't built an immunity have perished. And we have NO NEW egg layers being raised this year. TRANSLATION: Egg production typically slows this time of year, but due to predation and no new layers coming on board, egg production is slowing much more quickly and we will be low on eggs sooner than expected. As egg production continues to drop, we will start butchering birds this fall, probably starting in September (which means more stew hens in the freezer for you) but egg sales will cease at some point in time, sooner than we hoped and we won't have eggs again until next summer.

Continuing the discussion on eggs - duck egg production has been drastically reduced as well. Of the 7 ducks that were taken by coyotes, all 7 were female. Those were all productive, laying ducks. It has left me with a flock of ducks that is about 50/50 drakes to ducks. Drakes aren't laying, and some of the ducks are frightened and don't lay for several days after the loss of one of their friends. I suspect duck egg production to continue to reduce, hopefully not attributed to any more losses, until the fall when they all get butchered as well.

Third - meat production. This illness is partly why our chickens and turkeys have not been able to grow to the sizes we were used to seeing before the mycoplasma. We struggle to raise any turkey past 20 pounds, if any, when we used to regularly get them to 30+.  Turkeys also have an innate ability to off themselves in unique ways, so I am trying to keep them as safe as possible, but we will start getting colder weather, wet weather and other incidents that may endanger the naturally clumsy turkeys. Once they are large enough to perch in trees at night, they are relatively safe. As for that owl, we are not finding turkey remains from its hunting, but it is possible that some of our turkeys are small enough, still, that an owl, eagle or hawk can carry them off with no trace behind.    We are raising 200 MORE meat chickens than last year, but are continuing to suffer losses due to the owl, as well as the illness. We are hoping to stock our freezers to last through the winter, but we might sell out of meat birds early again this winter.

Fourth, let's talk turkey a little bit longer. The illness may stunt their growth, so again, this year, we may struggle with getting birds past 20 pounds. We also have several other factors against us with turkeys this year that will limit the number we have to sell. 1. I moved my incubator this year, and lost about 1.5 months worth of hatching eggs - we would have been rolling in turkeys. I did not realize that this move would effect the temperature and humidity regulation of the incubator, and once I moved it back to the basement, I started hatching turkeys - too little too late and that quickly dropped the number of available turkeys we have for the holidays. 2. We had several batches of purchased turkeys, arrive during storms. We had those wonderful May snows - not so wonderful for baby birds trying to stay warm. Many were brooded inside the house, and still we lost most of our spring baby turkeys. 3. Several batches of purchased turkeys have been cancelled or delayed to me from the hatcheries, as they did not hatch as many as planned. This has already shorted me over 75 birds as well as delaying them to me ensures they don't have the time to grow to the size we want. It's going to be a depressing turkey season. We will have birds, but until September, I won't have a good idea of how many - but I can guarantee, if you want a 6 pound turkey, we'll have lots of those!

Last - what does this mean for the future?  This means several things for the future - we will have no birds this winter. It gives us time to rebuild our brooder - we want to add temperature controls for heat and fans. There are two major issues with brooding - one is keeping it warm enough during an unexpected cold blast (like our May snow storms), as well as keeping air circulating when it gets hot. If we can better automate this, we can make sure birds never get too hot or too cold in the brooder, so we can eliminate the loss during that stage.  We can also ensure that no birds will carry the Mycoplasma virus, and giving us time to sanitize all their coops, brooders, gear and fields - we can ensure we won't get it again. This will reduce loss to illness as well as lost growth in meat birds. It will also reduce the cost of purchasing antibiotics, as well as eliminating the need for them. We will have happy, healthy birds again.

It means that we will not have eggs for probably 9 months. No eggs. Not a one. So our egg customers will be disappointed, but we'll be back up and running eventually.  It won't effect the timing of meat production, so we will still have chicken and turkey available at the same timing that we usually do, and hopefully next year they will be bigger!

However, this dilemma also gives us a HUGE opportunity. By eliminating all our birds, and cleaning out our brooders and grain bins, this gives us the change to go ORGANIC next year. We've been feeding our birds non-medicated, but conventional feed.  I won't go into all the details right now (isn't this post long enough already?) but we are working on making the switch. It won't be a 100% switch, but it's going to be tilted more towards organic, with some conventional meat chickens on the side for folks who don't want the price hike.

Feel free to contact me with any questions. The short of it is: Our birds carry a highly contagious bird illness, and the only way to eliminate it is to eliminate our flocks, start over with NPIP registered chicks, and maintain biosecurity on our farm to ensure we don't get the illness back again. It's the responsible thing to do, and it's the RIGHT thing to do, for us, for the birds, and for our customers.