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How to keep poults in the best of health

With the spotlight on biosecurity in the wake of the bird flu crisis, Liam Bell shares his tips on ensuring stock stays in top condition.


Keeping poults healthy

The problems being caused by avian influenza (AI) in the UK and abroad have once again underlined the importance of biosecurity and best practice. (Read more on avian influenza.) Not only in the prevention of notifiable viruses and diseases such as AI, but in the prevention and treatment of many of the more common gamebird ailments. If we can reduce the occurrence and the spread through best practice, and as a result reduce our reliance on antibiotics and medicines, it can only be for the greater good.

Ensuring your stock is healthy when it is delivered is always a good starting point and, while I realise that for many shoots this year it is a case of getting what you can from where you can, there is still no excuse for suppliers to be sending out birds that are below par. This season, there won’t be any replacements or cheap birds to top up the pens if there is a disaster. We are only going to have one crack at getting it right and keeping poults healthy.

Keeping poults healthy

The earliest hatches usually produce the strongest chicks

Strong chicks and poults

Generally, the earlier hatches produce the strongest chicks and the strongest poults. The later the birds, the slower they grow and the more problems they seem to have. This is why you should insist that your poults are closer to eight weeks old than seven weeks if they are delivered in mid to late August. July poults should be OK at seven weeks old, but any later than that and they will need the extra few days to catch up. The older, stronger and heavier they are, the better they will cope with the stresses of catching, crating and being moved.

The biggest cause of disease in release pens is overstocking. If pens that previously had 200 to 300 birds in them are being upped to 400 to 500 birds without being extended, that is asking for trouble. Even more so if the pens are old and the ground stale.

Dipping boots in disinfectant

Boots can be washed in disinfectant to help reduce the risk of any cross-contamination

Stocking densities

If people are putting down fewer birds this year, I wonder whether they will notice the positive difference that lower stocking densities make to the birds. They may consider extending their pens next year if the number of birds they release goes back up.

A rough rule of thumb is a metre of perimeter per bird, so a 50m by 50m pen would be big enough for 200 birds. Any smaller, even if the inside of the pen has decent ground cover and there is plenty of light, and you are going to have problems. You may get away with it when the pen is new, the ground is fresh and the weather is good, but not in an old pen with less than ideal cover if it turns wet. (Read how to build the perfect pheasant pen.)

The feeders and drinkers will need disinfecting with a hatchery-grade disinfectant. Ordinary farm or kennel disinfectant will kill a few of the bugs, but not the important ones that will be killed by the stronger stuff. The drinkers need to be taken to bits and the parts scrubbed before they are put back together.

Pressure washers can save time if you are blasting mud off a load of feeders, but it’s best to dismantle the drinkers and wash them by hand in warm water and washing-up liquid.Dip them in a separate tub of cleaner water containing the disinfectant.

Alkathene water pipes and header tanks will need rinsing through with an alkaline solution, such as Aquasan, to get rid of any bugs, and the flexible rubber micropipes, which connect the saddles on the alkathene to the drinkers, will need soaking for at least a week to get rid of as much internal grime as possible. We change our micropipes every two or three years because they are so difficult to clean. I recommend you do the same.

The poults will need worming, regardless of how new the pen is or how fresh you think the ground is. This needs to be with an approved gamebird wormer, for which you will need a veterinary prescription. Don’t be tempted to use an unlicensed wormer to try to save a few pounds, because it won’t work and it is illegal.

It is also a good idea to pulse-dose the birds with multivitamins and add electrolytes to the water for their first few days in the pen, to help combat any dehydration caused by the stresses of the move. And do use gamebird tonics containing beneficial herbs and spices.

Nothing is guaranteed, though, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, poults can pick things up and become unwell. If you do notice something wrong with them — for example if they go off the feed and start picking at their food without eating it; if their droppings are loose or a funny colour; if one or two start to move with a funny, stilted walk or sit there looking hunched up — take them to a specialist poultry vet as soon as you can. (Read more on dealing with poorly poults.)

Whatever they have got, it won’t go away by itself. In something as small as a pheasant or partridge poult, an extra day of delay in getting them looked at can make quite a difference.

I know some people use foot dips when they are trying to prevent cross-contamination between rearing sheds, but I am not sure they do much in outdoor settings such as release pens, where you are going to have muck on your boots that will be almost impossible to clean properly between pens.

To reduce the risk of you carrying any infection into other pens, work your route so the worst-affected pen is fed and watered last. You can wash your boots off properly when you get back to the yard and dip the soles of your boots in a drop of disinfectant before you go back out.

Sometimes it takes something such as the current supply crisis for people to have a proper look at how they do things. Best practice will always produce better birds — and better birds will always be stronger, fly higher and give you better returns.