It was not very long ago when outdoor flocks in Western Canada could live long and never get sick beyond the occasional cough in the winter. But serious diseases have become a problem in the last 50 years. The number of birds being kept has grown hugely, and flocks are closer together. Biosecurity is often poor, with people buying and selling birds that may be carrying a disease. And perhaps the worst culprit: people who are reluctant to cull or even quarantine sick birds. This situation is a bonanza for germs. Once a disease gets introduced it’s here to stay, and we will likely see more and more of it.

In our opinion, the best way to protect our birds from disease is to vaccinate them. There are excellent, non-shedding vaccines now that can be administered to day old chicks. We can’t protect them from everything, but the vaccine we have chosen for the hatchery for 2017 gives them protection from the 2 worst and most common diseases in this area: Marek’s Disease and Infectious Laryngotracheitis, ILT.

Let’s talk about Marek’s Disease. It is a highly contagious neoplastic disease caused by a herpes virus. The virus is spread in dander from feather follicles which can stay suspended in the air for days and travel many miles. After inhaling the dust, microscopic lesions are present after one to two weeks, and gross lesions are present after three to four weeks. Chicks may go lame or get hugely enlarged livers before maturity, although some birds live a few years with the infection. Infected birds can be carriers and shedders for life. Marek’s disease is the most common chicken disease in this area.

And ILT. It is an acute, highly contagious, herpes virus infection characterized by severe trouble breathing, coughing, a swollen head, weepy eyes and a drop in egg laying. After recovery, birds remain carriers for life and become a source of infection for susceptible birds. The latent virus can be reactivated every time the bird is stressed. ILT is a reportable disease in Canada and you may be required to cull all your poultry if your flock gets it.

The vaccine we use at TNHH is Vectormune LT. It is stored in liquid nitrogen, so there is no mercury in it. A single 0.2ml shot at the hatchery confers lifetime immunity to both Marek’s and ILT. The vaccinated birds cannot spread either disease to other birds.

Here are some reasons people give for not vaccinating, and our comments:

* We’re organic. - No problem, vaccines are approved by all the organic certifiers.

* Vaccination is stressful - Not as stressful as suffering with Marek’s or ILT

* We’re breeding for natural resistance - That would be a very advanced genetics project, which requires far bigger flocks than you could possibly have.

* We can’t because we’re going to use medicated feed - Medicated feed only affects the Cocci parasite, it has no effect on viruses.

* We don’t have those diseases here - You may not, but unless you have your flock perfectly isolated they will be exposed sooner or later.

* It’s not worth the cost - One healthy young hen is worth the cost of 100 vaccinations.

Like small pox, Marek’s and ILT could be wiped out if everyone vaccinated. I don’t expect that to happen in my lifetime, but I’m doing my part now!