Preventing the Top 5 Causes of Chicken Death

Did you know that the top five causes of mortality in chickens can be mostly prevented by management? That’s good news for those of us with chickens.

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At the Livestock Conservancy conference in November, Julie Gauthier of Chickcharney Farm in North Carolina led a workshop about managing poultry health. She shared many helpful ideas for ensuring the long term health of your flock including holistic management, biosecurity practices, and nutrition across the chicken lifespan. In addition to raising heritage chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and myotonic goats on her homestead, Julie also works as a USDA Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostician. She is also the author of Chicken Health for Dummies.

When making poultry management decisions, Julie suggests focusing on your flock overall rather than individual chickens. Chickens often try to hide their illness (to avoid being picked on by other chickens), so treatment may be too late by the time they show signs of sickness. Therefore, it makes more sense to focus on preventing poultry health issues in your entire flock from the start. According to Julie, many of the top causes of mortality in adult chickens are caused by management- related issues and can be prevented. The top causes include:

  • Predator attacks by dogs, coyotes, raccoons, birds of prey, and more
  • Cannibalism or vent pecking – Chickens pecking and injuring one another including their vents
  • Egg peritonitis – An infection of the hen’s oviduct, which happens because the yolk does not get encapsulated by an egg
  • Vent prolapse – The lower part of the oviduct turns inside out and comes through the vent
  • Fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome/scratch fed syndrome – a hemorrhage that occurs when a hen is straining to lay an egg

Preventing predator attacks

Electric fencing is frequently mentioned as a tool for preventing predator attacks. Other options that you could include as part of an integrated predator management plan include obstructing the flight path of birds of prey, using guard animals, and keeping your chickens in long narrow pens. For flight path obstruction, you could either install complete overhead netting or even a few wires or squares of mason twine might do the trick. Long narrow pens can make it more difficult for predators to maneuver and swoop down to pick up chickens. Here are more tips for protecting your livestock from predators and if you’d like to try using guard animals, here are 7 tips for success with a farm dog.

Cannibalism prevention

Many of the factors that lead to cannibalism among chickens are easily preventable. Make sure to avoid over crowding and have plenty of feeders to support the number of chickens that you have in your space. Quickly remove any sick or injured birds so that they do not become easy targets for other chickens. Maintaining a balanced diet for your chickens will also ensure that they don’t get hungry or become nutritionally deficient and start trying to eat each other. A course grind mash with plenty of fiber such as oats and alfalfa (rather than a processed, crumbled feed) and/or cracked corn are healthy, balanced feed options. Keeping your chickens entertained, providing safe refuges, shelters, plenty of forage, and protection from heat stress are also helpful for cannibalism prevention. Hanging a whole cabbage on a rope, old CDs, or a mirror are a few ways to entertain your chickens. If you identify the main offender, you could put pinless peepers on them using split ring pliers to keep them from pecking other chickens.

Egg peritonitis prevention

Egg peritonitis (colibacillosis) is more likely to happen in overweight hens, so it can be prevented by providing a balanced high-fiber diet. Anytime you change your chicken’s feed (such as switching from pellets to mash) it should be done gradually over about a week.

Vent prolapse prevention

To prevent vent prolapse, Julie recommended having perches no more than 24 inches apart and no more than 24 inches off of the floor (this also reduces bumblefoot). Perches should also have rectangular rather than circular edges and be made of wood rather than plastic or metal. Again, a balanced diet is very helpful as well as maintaining natural lighting. Another way to avoid vent prolapse is to NOT select for double-yolk layers.

Fatty liver hemorrhagic/scratch fed syndrome

Fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome is sometimes called “scratch fed” syndrome because it happens more often with chickens that are getting scratch feed, which is high in carbs and low in nutrition. In addition to feeding a balanced ration, you can help prevent this by keeping your chickens from experiencing heat stress.

I think it’s very interesting that nutrition is such a key part of preventing each of these issues and it’s encouraging because it’s something that can be easily controlled. To learn more, check out Julie’s book Chicken Health for Dummies. Many of these health issues and proper management techniques are also addressed in one of my favorite books about chickens – Harvey Ussery’s The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. In the comments, we’d love to hear other ways you have successfully prevented these poultry health issues.

Janie Hynson is a beginning homesteader in North Carolina. She works in public health and sustainable agriculture and is interested in how health can be improved through homesteading.

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