9 poultry range jobs to do as housing order ends

With the flock housing order lifted on 18 April and avian influenza case numbers dropping, it is hoped the disease will revert to a more traditional spring/summer lull.

So as poultry businesses return to free-range production, it is time to ensure ranges are in tip-top order.

From repairing damaged fencing, to filling in potholes that could harbour stagnant water and bugs, a list of jobs may need doing with the popholes open again.

Rebecca Tierney, poultry adviser at Irish advisory, education and research body Teagasc, says getting those done now will protect birds from disease and predators. She gives her top tips on likely repairs.

See also: 4 tips to get staff to buy into farm biosecurity protocols

1. Fill potholes

Potholes are not uncommon on a range and are often seen around the most densely populated areas such as the popholes.

Holes are likely to contain stagnant water and birds will drink the water that is available to them, which will compromise bird health, so filling these in should be a priority.

As the water in potholes often attracts wild birds, it could carry disease.

2. Power-wash and disinfect around popholes

If there has been a specific disease present in the flock, use a disinfectant appropriate for tackling this.

Use it at the correct dilution rate – if there is insufficient chemical for the volume of water it won’t provide adequate cover and bacteria will be carried from one flock to the next.

Use full personal protection equipment, including the correct gloves, goggles and mask, to protect you and your staff.

If a detergent and a disinfectant are to be used in combination, check that they are compatible and designed to work together, because in some cases one can cancel out the effectiveness of the other.

If the weather is still cold at turnout, make sure the product works at a lower temperature – this guidance will be on the label.

In the case of a foot-dip, if the air temperature is still very low, consider placing it inside the door of the house where it is warmer, but in a position where it is obvious and staff will use it.

However, always try to buy a disinfectant that can be used outside or there is little point in having it.

Ensure the disinfectant in the foot-dip is replenished as required – that doesn’t necessarily mean once a week, but don’t be afraid to change it as frequently as needed.

After heavy use, remove soiled material from the solution because the disinfectant will concentrate on that piece of material and lose its general effectiveness.

3. Lime areas of stone

Stones can’t be power-washed, so treat these areas with a dressing of lime, a natural disinfectant.

This area must be as free of disease as possible because it’s the last piece of ground that the birds mingle on and pass through on their way back into the house.

Make it a priority to avoid diseases and pathogens being carried into the house on their feet.

4. Fix broken fences

Fences are not just to contain the birds but to prevent predators getting in.

As the ground hasn’t been ranged for some time, grass, weeds or briars may have grown through fencing and have started to weaken it, so cut these back or they risk pulling the fencing down.

If there is any sign of weakness, foxes will almost certainly find that spot and work out a way of getting through and onto the range.

5. Maintain shelters

Whether man-made or natural, shelters are likely to need some attention.

If hedgerows are used for shelter, maintain these to allow hens to get under them as protection from anything overhead or weather extremes, whether that is heavy rain, high winds or strong sun.

Man-made shelters could have been damaged in storms or by weeds pushing up under them, so check these.

6. Repair netting

Some ranges will have netting over the first section of the range from the popholes, where birds populate.

This needs to be up to scratch to stop wild birds landing in that area and mingling with the flock.

Check that it is correctly in place, with no lying weeds on the top, and repair any sections that may have been pulled off in strong winds.

7.  Consider the length of the grass

Grass needs to be maintained at a suitable height so that it won’t provide cover for predators or prevent the birds from ranging. Mow it to a sensible height – no higher than 6cm.

The objective is to have grass that birds can forage through, scratch and peck – foraging for food is an important part of keeping them occupied and fit.

Some of the range can be sectioned off for making silage if required.

8. Reseed bare patches

If areas of grass have become patchy, overseed, protect and allow to rejuvenate.

Avoid poaching the ground in wet weather as dirt will accumulate on hens’ feet as they go back into the house and that dirt will be carried into the nesting boxes and onto the eggs.

In a deep litter system, if conditions are muddy and feet get wet and dirty, it will affect the litter quality too.

9. Manage trees

Agroforestry through the range needs to be managed. If the range is part of a tree grant scheme, any saplings that have failed should be replaced.

If all the same species are dying there may be conditions making it unsuitable for that location, so consider replacing it with a mix of other species. 

Pruning might be necessary; start from the bottom and don’t remove more than a quarter of the branches.

This can reduce damage caused by birds trying to roost on lower branches that aren’t strong enough to take their weight.

It also prevents ground vegetation growing into lower branches, which may cause the hens to lay outside.

If the stems of trees are becoming too wide for the guards and they have started to split, or the trees have grown to more than 3m in height, remove the tubes.

The area around saplings may need to be trimmed if it is smothering them.

Deal with any trees in the hedge lines that are weakened. It might be that a tree or branch needs to be removed to prevent damage to the fence or shelters in the future.

Remove and replace any tree shelters that have fallen into disrepair.