This one time my Dad went on a last minute trip to Hawaii and left my Mom and I in charge of the chores. While he was gone we killed all of the chickens….I wish I was joking.
So let me tell you what is likely one of the most traumatizing stories of our farming experience to date. I will start out with a few overarching ideas to help set the tone. First off if you are going to raise livestock you will inevitably encounter deadstock at some point in your journey. Second, we are navigating some pretty big feelings over here right now. There is a little bit of shame stemming from the feeling that we did something wrong and a whole lot of guilt because we really cared for our flock.
Let’s get into the details of the whole ordeal. Last Sunday morning Mat went into the coop to open up and found a dead bird. This was a first for us. It isn't uncommon for chickens to up and die for little to no reason so we didn’t think too much of it. Monday night my Mom went in to collect eggs and found 3 more dead birds. Okay, 4 dead birds in 2 days had our spidey senses tingling. Tuesday and Wednesday we didn’t have any more dead birds but our chickens were coughing and there was unexplained blood in the coops (we thought the roosters might have been fighting). We talked about trying to isolate the sick birds but we were having a hard time figuring out which ones were actually sick. We have read about all of the worst case scenarios over the past few years yet still weren’t exactly sure what was going on or what to do about it. Although we didn’t know exactly what to do we knew that it was serious and needed to be monitored.
Thursday morning we found 2 more dead birds and our whole flock was now obviously ill. I started with a phone call to our local vet who directed me to a poultry specific vet out of Camrose. The vet from Camrose typically deals with commercial producers and didn’t want to touch us with a 10 foot pole (justified) in case whatever we had happened to be reportable and a major risk to their large scale producers. The vet tech very kindly offered to contact a friend at our clinic and walk them through the process of us submitting a few of our birds for a post mortem. That afternoon I loaded up the kids and a box of dead chickens and hit the highway in the snow to ensure the birds made it to the lab with enough time to do the exams before the weekend.
Friday we got the news that our chickens had “exceptional body condition” but they also had something called ILT (Infectious Laryngotracheitis). Fantastic, we have the best looking dead chickens in town. ILT is a form of respiratory herpes (herpes seem to be haunting us, first Enda, now the birds) that is extremely infectious and happens to be a reportable disease in Alberta. What does that mean exactly? If you have ILT in your flock the provincial ag services are going to get involved because it could pose a serious risk to the poultry industry if not dealt with properly. We were given very specific instructions and all neighbouring farms within 20km who have registered flocks were notified.
We were faced with two options. Keep our flock (if any survived) and follow very strict rules for the remainder of our days with chickens. Option two was to cull our whole flock, dispose of them properly, disinfect everything to a very high standard, sit out a mandatory waiting period and then start new.
Our chickens are a small fun thing for us so this whole situation has felt like a little bit more than we were up for. We have prided ourselves on being ethical and responsible livestock owners. We would like to have the freedom to hatch and sell chicks or sell off old birds if we would like to. With those two things in mind the choice was clear what needed to be done. Our birds were so sick. It was obvious they were suffering and the likelihood of recovery was low. On Friday night Mat culled our remaining 44 chickens. We lost 55 beautiful birds in total. As the birds are not allowed to leave our property, even dead, we have disposed of them properly and are in the process of cleaning and disinfecting everything to the standards outlined by the province.
In the telling of this story I have tried to give enough details that other backyard chicken owners can learn from our experience but also be respectful of our friends that may struggle with this very real, very hard part of producing our own food.
Our big question right now is “how did this happen?” Both our local and provincial vets have been very kind to us. ILT is not common or widespread in Alberta but there was a case in our area in the past few months. We are known for running into the coop to grab eggs or close up in our town shoes or running to the feed store in our farm boots. That really isn’t best practice from a biosecurity stand point. There is a possibility that we brought it into our flock that way but the likelihood is very low. We also have gotten our chickens from multiple sources. It is possible that one of the birds brought ILT into our flock. The provincial vet feels this is very unlikely as we haven’t added any birds since last summer. If it had been in our flock for that long it would be unlikely that our bird's body condition would have been as good as it was.
So where did it come from? The reality is we will never know. Speculation from the provincial vet is that it could have come into our flock from a wild bird. We went from getting 40+ eggs a day to no chickens left standing in less than a week. With how healthy our birds were and how aggressive the virus was it is likely the virus came into our flock 5-10 days before our first bird died. If this did in fact come into our flock from a wild bird it could pose significant risk to other poultry owners in our area, which is why I am writing about this in so much detail.
We have made the choice, as a family, to not rush into replacing our birds. We are mandated to wait 60 days before reintroducing poultry to our farm. We have decided that we will likely wait beyond that 60 days. Our birds weren’t pets but we cared for them deeply and were very proud of the flock we were building. There won't be any eggs or meat birds from us this summer.
My Dad really was in Hawaii last week while this was playing out and Mat was away for work until Thursday night so my Mom and I dealt with this issue mostly on our own. I want to give my Mom a major shout out as she did a great deal of the finding of dead birds and the first round of cleaning. Mat had the absolutely brutal task of culling our remaining birds. My Mom told My Dad on their way home from the airport on Saturday. Although he missed some of the more horrific parts of the ordeal he did spearhead the task of burning the remains which wasn’t a small job.
Onwards and upwards from here….we are also now in the market for eggs if you happen to know anyone in our area!