If you have chickens and are considering adding turkeys to your homestead, you have no doubt either read or been told by a well-meaning friend that you cannot keep chickens and turkeys together. It is widely believed that chickens will give blackhead disease to turkeys and wipe out your flock. This is not usually true in natural situations, and there are several things you can do to guard against the disease. First, chickens cannot give blackhead to your turkeys if they don’t have it. Maintaining a closed flock and only purchasing day-old chicks and poults from certified disease-free hatcheries reduces your risk. Because chickens can be carriers and show no symptoms of the disease, do not accept any rescue chickens, unwanted roosters from someone else’s flock, or any free adult chickens for any other reason. Wait three years before getting any type of poultry if you are concerned about blackhead from previous poultry that lived on your property.
Why wait three years to raise poultry if you are concerned about the blackhead history of your property? The disease can be transmitted through cecal worm eggs, which can be ingested by turkeys. Earthworms, which are eaten by turkeys, eat the cecal worm eggs and become carriers. The protozoa inside an earthworm are protected as the worm travels through the turkey’s acidic stomach to the cecum, where it can infect the bird. Chickens raised on infected property can perpetuate the disease quietly. By not raising any poultry on the property for three years, you break the lifecycle of the protozoa.
Blackhead first became a problem at the end of the nineteenth century. U.S. turkey production fell from 11 million birds in 1890 to an average of 3.7 million annually between 1910 and 1920. I doubt it is a coincidence that this happened at the same time that poultry producers were moving birds inside and creating larger and larger flocks. Blackhead infection is unlikely in free-range situations because the H. meleagridis pathogen is not strong enough to survive the drying effect of wind, ultraviolet rays of sunshine, and freezing temperatures.
In the early 1900s, poultry producers thought that turkeys contracted the disease by consuming feces of infected birds. Today, however, researchers have discovered that a turkey’s stomach acid kills the blackhead protozoan. The most likely route of infection is fecal-cloacal, meaning that a turkey will get infected if it sits in infected feces, which is most likely to happen in a confinement situation where turkeys are crowded and roosts are not provided. People used to believe that turkeys would be healthier if raised inside with wire flooring, and those turkeys probably were healthier than their cousins that were confined on solid floors. The wire floors almost entirely eliminated fecal contact. However, it is difficult for turkeys to contract blackhead if they are free range and can roost in trees or if they have roosts available to them in their overnight shelter.
This is an excerpt from Homegrown and Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living by Deborah Niemann
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