Backyard poultry flocks are increasingly popular in Virginia as people explore ways to raise their own food and become more self-reliant amid the pandemic.
Fueled by food shortages at the supermarket and people cooped up at home, backyard chickens are taking off. Hatcheries nationwide are reporting record sales, and long waiting lists have them scrambling to meet demand.
“We’re receiving more inquiries about backyard poultry production,” said Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Farm supply stores are continuing to sell chicks and ducklings well into the summer beyond the typical springtime peak.”
Raising backyard chickens is a sustainable way to produce locally sourced food without requiring much space.
While it can be fun and educational, “Owners should be aware that poultry can sometimes carry harmful germs that make people sick,” Banks said.
Proper biosecurity and flock care are essential, as some birds can spread diseases like salmonella. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a multistate outbreak of salmonella infections linked to backyard flocks. As of the end of June, 465 people in 42 states have been infected from touching and handling live poultry.
In addition, “Backyard flocks can have a major impact on commercial poultry by serving as a reservoir for poultry diseases such as avian influenza, which can easily be spread,” Banks explained.
The last major U.S. outbreak of avian flu was in 2014. It cost the poultry industry more than $1 billion and took over a year to mitigate, Banks added.
For anyone considering starting a backyard flock, Banks recommended purchasing poultry from dealers or farms that participate in the National Poultry Improvement Plan. Those businesses must meet certain flock health and sanitation standards.
To keep households and property safe, follow biosecurity practices such as washing your hands before and after handling chickens and isolating the birds from visitors and other animals. Ensure poultry areas are clean, and prevent germs from spreading by disinfecting shoes, tools, equipment and anything used to transport chickens like vehicles and cages.
Also, know the warning signs of infectious bird diseases, and watch your flock for early signs, Banks cautioned. Report sick birds to a local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, local veterinarian, the Virginia Office of Veterinary Services or the U.S. Department of Agriculture Veterinary Services office.