Preparing for a wet summer on the range

As changes in our climate make it more likely that large amounts of rain will fall over short periods during the warm summer months, poultry producers need to be increasingly diligent in preventing disease build-up on the poached ground in front of the pop-holes to their hen houses.

Many bacteria – E coli, staphylococcus and even erysipelas – will thrive in such warm, damp conditions that provide a ready supply of droppings to feast on. And where puddles are allowed to get established, there’s the risk that these pools may provide the ideal environment to support virus infection.

Research and development into the way birds are housed and managed has sought to improve standards of health and welfare in buildings. Likewise, the matter of “pasture management” is becoming a priority topic among producers. But it’s the “bit in the middle” that can cause the biggest headache to producers.

Without doubt the strip of land on to which free-range birds emerge as they leave the popholes receives a greater foot-fall – in terms of the number of birds concentrated over one area – than any other part of the system. A myriad of methods to make this area more able to cope with such a high volume of traffic has been tried and some certainly work better than others depending on the level of maintenance and the diligence of individuals.

Disease risk

While poached ground looks unsightly and doesn’t enhance the image of the system or the birds’ environment, such conditions in the winter are often difficult to avoid where an ineffective system of preventing poaching is in place.

But poached ground in summer, caused by wet weather, brings a greater risk of disease build-up – especially if the area is shaded and suffers from a lack of sunlight. A shortage of ultraviolet light means many harmful bacteria are left to thrive.

Producers should therefore think carefully about creating better facilities in this area, to create dry, hygienic conditions that prevail at all times of the year – irrespective of the weather.

Specialist poultry vet Alastair Johnston of Minster Vets in York says it is extremely difficult to assess exactly what sort of bacteria may be lurking in such poached ground. “Where to take samples from and how far down you go is not an exact procedure, so if producers can take steps to avoid ground getting poached in the first place, so much the better,” says Mr Johnston.

Good drainage is fundamental in this area, although he admits it’s not always considered a priority with the house itself being the main focus of attention.

“Ensuring water is efficiently moved away from this area is very important and then you can start to think about ways of keeping the ground stable. A layer of stone is the most popular option, but it must be of a size that will clean easily – either by rain or by other means if that becomes necessary. But even this is no total solution. Topping up with stone to retain the stability of the ground to avoid poaching must be maintained.

Dropping build-up

“Verandas are favoured by some – whether plastic or timber – but they will lead to a build-up of droppings underneath and may only lead to poaching of the land immediately beyond the veranda,” says Mr Johnston.

A build-up of bacterial infection in these areas in front of pophole entrances will affect mortality rates, but as well as improving the physical conditions, producers can use disinfectants – even in-between batches if necessary.

“Liquid disinfection is the most widely used, but there are always questions asked about the degree of efficacy depending on the level of penetration of the ground. Some of the dry powder treatments are proving popular and have a desiccating effect when applied to wet conditions.”

Richard Buchan of Harlow Bros building suppliers urges all customers about to start building on a new site to think first about the impact on the land around the house that will eventually be taking the greatest pressure from the laying flock.

“It’s almost a no-man’s land in terms of the amount of consideration given to it in the planning of a new unit. With a concrete base in place the producer then gives the green light for work to start on the shed, but if no thought has been given to the land immediately around the curtilage of the building itself, that area can suffer a great deal of damage during the building work,” says Mr Buchan.

Large stones

He advises those about to put up new sheds to make sure the area that will be in front of the pophole entrances – say about 4-5m in width – is covered in hardcore.

poultry housing 
One to avoid… Water-logged ground around free-range house pop-holes is a natural breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria.

“This will give the perimeter of the unit a degree of stability – in particular during the time of the construction. If this doesn’t happen, the area around the house can look like a quagmire when the builders leave and in many cases it never recovers from that damage.”

Minimising damage to this area is critical at this early stage, but once the shed is built Mr Buchan suggests three options:

“Go for large stones and not gravel. The stones must be like pebbles so that the birds can walk on them comfortably and yet be easily washed by the rain to keep them clean. Small pebbles or gravel will quickly disappear in this situation.

“Alternatively, a veranda could be built – about 6ft wide – to keep birds off the ground as they move in and out of the house. A platform or similar construction is also worth considering – in fact anything that will prevent the damage of this area by the high concentration of bird traffic.

“Constructing a concrete pad is the final option, but it’s a lot more costly and there’s the issue of keeping it clean and preventing water collecting on it.”

Paul McMullin of Poultry Health Services, Thirsk, North Yorkshire, believes physical attention to cleanliness in the area around popholes is the key to avoiding conditions that could impact on flock health through E coli, as well as blackhead and worms.

“Don’t allow any areas of standing water to build up. They will become contaminated with hen and wild bird droppings and create a hot-spot for disease. Make sure the area is well-drained and that no roof water from the house is running on to it. Guttering on all sheds is important.”

Mr McMullin says the size of stones used to create durable conditions must be carefully considered. “If they are too small they will be ineffective, but if they are too big they are uncomfortable for birds to walk on and can deter ranging.”