These days, it’s all COVID all the time.
Except when it’s salmonella.
CNN reported it a few weeks back, tying a notable increase in salmonella cases to the pandemic-related uptick in backyard flock-keeping. A lot of people decided that if they’re staying home all day every day, they’d like to do it in the company of chickens. Seems reasonable to me. But some of them apparently failed to read up on the importance of biosecurity and simple hygiene, which is kind of hard to believe in our current pandemic life.
It’s well known that salmonella bacteria live in the digestive tracts of poultry. Even novice cooks know not to leave uncooked chicken sitting about, and the importance of thoroughly washing utensils and surfaces like cutting boards that come in contact with raw chicken.
And the rawest of chickens – the ones with feathers that go squawking around the coop – can excrete salmonella in their droppings. It is so rare for humans to contract salmonella from a backyard flock that it makes headlines when it happens. And after digging a little deeper into the topic, I have a suspicion that it is almost completely avoidable.
How to stay salmonella-safe?
Wash your hands! (Duh, right?)
First thing I do after being around the hens, whether I’ve handled them directly or not, is to thoroughly wash my hands. And, it turns out, this is even more important for children, whose immune systems are still developing, and who might not be able to resist nuzzling a downy chick.
Keep a clean coop!
Our current flock of seven hens is the largest we’ve ever had. Back when we had three or four hens, daily clean up took about half an hour; now I spend closer to a full hour every morning cleaning the coop. It might be overkill – I don’t think most people generally take that much time – but I want the inside of our coop to be as pristine as possible. This means gathering all the droppings deposited overnight (hens’ ridiculously high rate of respiration means a LOT of poop) as well as wiping down all surfaces and freshening food, water and litter daily.
Keep a spacious coop!
Rule of thumb guidelines for keeping chickens: a minimum of about 2 to 3 square feet per chicken inside the coop, and 8 to 10 square feet per chicken in an outside run. More square footage is better. The tighter the space, the greater dysfunction in flock dynamics and the greater the likelihood of contamination and communicable illness within the flock.
Keep a ventilated coop!
In a 2016 article titled Poultry house ventilation part of Salmonella control , Dr. Edward Mallinson states that “high levels of Salmonella were repeatedly found on litter surfaces where air flow or ventilation was negligible or stagnant.” He is referencing large-scale farm or commercial facilities in the article but the same principles hold for small-scale operations. Keep it clean and keep it ventilated.
Practice good biosecurity!
Wear gloves! Use a separate pair of shoes for working in the coop! Do not mingle birds from an off-site flock with your birds until they have undergone quarantine.
Keep a secure coop!
I found more than one reference to rodents as the source of salmonella in backyard flocks. Mice or rats that have access to poultry food can leave behind infected droppings that can cause a salmonella outbreak.
Oh, and about those eggs…
Some people refrigerate their eggs immediately. Some don’t. It’s a perennial debate. But one thing for sure is that IF you wash your eggs (and all eggs that come from the grocery or a farmers market will have been washed) they MUST be refrigerated, because washing removes the protective “bloom” from the egg that prevents bacteria from permeating the shell. If you wash eggs from your own backyard flock, use WARM water, not cold, as cold water causes the shell to contract and pulls in any bacteria.
Reports such as the recent one by CNN can unwittingly contribute to a misconception among many that chickens are inherently “unclean”. Not so! It all comes down to how tidily they are kept by their flock keepers. In eleven years of chicken-keeping, we’ve never had an instance of salmonella or any other communicable disease within or without the flock. Cleanliness is next to henliness – keep a clean space for them and you will have a happy flock of hens. Just resist the urge to kiss them!