We moved to this homestead in 2010 and I jumped headfirst into the chicken raising project. We had chickens when I was a kid and they free ranged around our yard and garden…no big deal, right?
So how much trouble can chickens really be? I started out by purchasing some 2 year old hens from a guy nearby. They were healthy but older, laying maybe 3 or 4 eggs a week each. We didn’t have nearly as many eggs as I wanted, so I started looking for chickens on Craigslist. Within a couple of months I had purchased chickens from a couple of different ads on Craigslist and unfortunately added 2 diseases to my flock…Marek’s disease and CRD. I learned the hard way that chickens are susceptible to a number of diseases, some of which may not be noticeable at first. So I definitely recommend that you quarantine your new chickens for a couple of weeks before you add them to the flock.
The first ailment, Marek’s disease, is a viral infection similar to herpes. It can kill young chickens without showing any symptoms, or they may start to act as if they are having trouble walking or flapping their wings. They become thin and weak and will often be bullied around by the other chickens. There is no cure for this disease and the best preventative is to start with hatchlings that have been vaccinated for Marek’s. This will not prevent some losses in your young flock, but it will keep the losses to a minimum. For example, I ordered vaccinated chicks and lost 5 out of 30 by the time they were full grown. Only 2 actually showed any symptoms of Mareck’s and I culled them immediately. When I hatched eggs from my flock, I lost almost half of the young birds before they were mature. They were not vaccinated.
This is a real disappointment when you take the time to hatch the eggs, then feed them with chick starter for 5 months. Feed is not cheap! So unless you have the ability to vaccinate your own chicks, you would be better off ordering vaccinated chicks…if you have had any signs of Mareck’s disease in your flock.
It is also important to note that once you have Marek’s disease in your flock, it is really difficult to get rid of. The virus is carried in feather and dander material and it takes 3 years with a poultry free environment to break the infection cycle, according to Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry.
After doing some research, I found that you can still eat infected chickens. The disease is not contagious to humans, only birds. So now when I notice any of by birds displaying symptoms of Marek’s disease, I cull them from the flock immediately and use them as stewing hens. They tend to be a bit on the stringy side and sometimes are so thin that they are barely worth dressing. But when you are working toward self sufficiency, you try to make use of every resource you have.