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It can be tough to find a vet that has much experience in caring for sick poultry. Often, it falls on the homesteader or farmer to educate themselves about the most common diseases, preventing them, their symptoms, and the best course of treatment. Although we do everything we can to keep our birds healthy, disease and illness can still happen on the homestead, no matter how diligent you are. That being said, the healthier your chickens are, to begin with, the less likely they are to get sick or have sickness spread throughout the flock.

Keeping Your Chickens Healthy

The chickens on our farm are fed a varied diet that includes a high-quality, non-GMO layer pellet, fresh produce, and herbs from the garden in season, and rotated pasture foraging (we use an electric poultry net enclosure for this). They also get apple cider vinegar in their water, and granulated garlic sprinkled on their pellets daily and yogurt a couple times a week. In the winter time, I like to add in some black oil sunflower seeds along with non-GMO scratch grains and corn. They have free access to grit and oyster shell calcium at all times, but they rarely go for it. Sometimes, they get mealworms as a special treat. Keeping a clean coop and yard is also essential.

Preventing the Spread of Illness in Your Flock

In all the years I’ve had chickens, we have never had an infection spread through our flock. At the first sign of sickness, the bird in question is kept isolated from the rest of the flock and watched over carefully, and the coop is disinfected right away. The sick bird is only returned to the flock after 7 symptom-free days have passed.

Also, if you bring new poultry to your homestead, they should always be isolated for at least 14 days and observed for symptoms of illness before you begin introducing them to your existing flock. Be careful of bringing disease home with you from other farms on your shoes, clothing, and used equipment, as well. Cleanliness is crucial to preventing the spread of disease! Clean and disinfect everything that has been in contact with someone else’s birds before it goes near your flock.

Common Diseases and Symptoms

Learning how to spot the signs of illness is the first step in preventing it from spreading throughout the entire flock.

1. Infectious Coryza

Infectious coryza is sometimes called croup. One of my neighbors lost their entire flock of layers to this disease a few years ago, and it was horrible. They suspect that the disease came home with some hens they purchased from another local farmer. Here are some of the most common symptoms:

  • Respiratory symptoms: wheezing, sneezing, coughing, raspy breathing, labored breathing
  • Puffy face accompanied by nasal discharge and watery eyes
  • Pale wattles and combs, possibly with a bluish tint
  • Staggering
  • Discontinued eating, drinking, and egg laying

Antibiotics are usually the recommended course of treatment, and they can sometimes be effective, but not always. Keeping your chickens healthy with a proper, varied diet improves chances of recovery. Isolate any bird that is showing symptoms immediately!

2. Fowl Pox

Many chickens recover from this disease, sometimes before the farmer even notices the symptoms. This disease is much like chicken pox in humans. The most apparent symptom is white lesions that look like blisters on the combs and wattles. Generally, the blisters will scab over and heal after a few weeks. However, in very severe cases, the blisters can appear in the mouth and throat. This can lead to breathing issues and difficulty eating and drinking, which can lead to death. There is a vaccine available for this disease, so that is an option. A healthy flock will often come through this one without the need for further treatment, but sometimes antibiotics are recommended. Separating any bird with symptoms is still a good idea for close observation and to help keep the disease contained.

3. Infectious Sinusitis

Infectious sinusitis can spread across all types of homestead poultry. The most common symptoms include:

  • Swollen eyes and nose
  • Coughing, sneezing, and difficulty breathing
  • Nose and eye discharge

Some antibiotics can treat this disease successfully but keeping your flock as healthy as possible will increase the chances of recovery and lessen the spread of the disease.

4. Avian Influenza

Avian influenza has been in the news a lot in recent years, and for good reason. This disease can be carried and transmitted by any species of birds, including wild birds. It is spread in the feces and mucous of the infected animal. This disease is a virus, so antibiotics are no help in this case. Culling of the entire flock is usually required by law. Here are some of the most common symptoms:

  • Sudden and unexplained death
  • Purplish tint to the wattles, comb, and legs
  • Lethargy and loss of desire to eat or drink
  • Coughing, sneezing, and discharge from the nose and eyes
  • Runny stool
  • Staggering and the inability to stand
  • Misshapen eggs or laying stops completely

Again, there is no known successful treatment for Avian Influenza. Prevention through cleanliness and a healthy diet will help your flock avoid infection.

5. Infectious Bronchitis

This is one of the more common diseases in backyard chickens, and we’ve had a few chickens come down with it over the years. The symptoms can range anywhere from quite mild to very severe and even fatal. Often, exposure comes from wildlife. These are the most common symptoms:

  • Loss of appetite and desire to drink
  • Nasal and eye discharge
  • Respiratory distress
  • Misshapen eggs or laying stops completely
  • Sluggishness
  • Scours (diarrhea)

There is a vaccine that can lessen the severity of this disease and improve chances of recovery, but it doesn’t prevent the infection itself. Antibiotics are usually recommended.

Caring for a Sick Chicken

First and foremost, isolate any chicken that shows signs of illness. Not only does this help to prevent the sickness from spreading, but it also protects the sick chicken from being bullied and picked on by the other chickens. It also allows you to observe the sick chicken closely and control its environment.

Hydration is crucial, so give water with a dropper if your chicken refuses to drink on its own. Consider offering an electrolyte and vitamin supplement for added support. If your chicken refuses to eat, you can crush their regular pellets and add warm water so that you can feed it with a dropper until your chicken starts eating on its own again.

Don’t introduce any new foods at this time. Keep your chicken warm and away from any drafts. Probiotics can also be helpful. Consult with a qualified vet or experienced chicken keeper to see if antibiotics are required, and if so which one. The Chicken Health Handbook, by Gail Damerow, is an excellent resource for any chicken owner, especially if there’s no qualified vet in your area. Once your chicken has been symptom-free for seven days, introduce her back to the flock slowly, just like you would a complete stranger.

Prevention is the best policy when it comes to illness on the farm. Practice good biosecurity and proper care from day one to prevent infectious disease in your flock.

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How to Make Money from Your Homestead Kitchen with Cottage Foods

If you’re like most homesteaders, you’re always on the lookout for creative ways to make money from your homestead. Do love to be in the kitchen? Do your friends and family rave about your baking skills? If so, starting a cottage food business just might be for you!

From preserves to cupcakes and spice rubs to homemade pies, the cottage food industry is becoming increasingly popular throughout the country. In many states, you can sell certain types of homemade goods with very minimal licensing. The laws do vary by state, however, and many states will require you to have an inspection of your kitchen, while a few others may even require a separate commercial kitchen.

Step One: Research Cottage Food Laws in Your State

Since cottage food laws can vary significantly by state, and sometimes even county, the first thing you need to do is research cottage food laws in your state. In most states, you will be able to sell your non-refrigerated homemade goods to individuals, but not businesses. As mentioned above, an inspection of your kitchen will probably be required, as well as a business license.

Most states will have a no pets in the kitchen during preparing and processing rule; some will have labeling requirements, as well. Some states will have a limit on the amount of foods you can sell each year, too, usually somewhere between $5,000 to $45,000. Contact your state’s Department of Agriculture to begin researching the cottage food laws in your state.

Step Two: Apply for Your License and Schedule Your Kitchen Inspection

Nothing ever moves fast with government agencies, so you’ll want to get the ball rolling by applying for your license and scheduling the inspection of your kitchen if required. Make sure you are complying with all regulations so that the process goes as smoothly as possible.

Step Three: Decide What You’re Going to Sell

While you’re waiting on all the red tape, you can decide what you’re going to sell and fine tune your recipes. The food items you are allowed to sell will vary by state, but generally, cottage food operators can sell baked goods that don’t require refrigeration, jams and jellies, dry cake and cookie mixes, nuts, dry cereals, granola, dry herb, and spice mixes, popcorn, and certain candies. You may be able to sell pickles and other preserves, as well. Perishable foods that require refrigeration will be forbidden pretty much across the board.

Step Four: Create Your Labeling and Packaging

Next, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to package each product. Cute packaging can go a long way toward attracting attention for your product, so spend some time on this step. When creating your product labels, be sure to follow your state’s guidelines. Many states will require you to inform customers that foods were created in a Cottage Food Operation where inspections are not required. Others require detailed nutrition labeling as well as the address where the food was produced. Be sure to include a full ingredient list and highlight potential allergens, even if it’s not required by your state.

Step Five: Decide Where You’re Going to Sell Your Products

In most states, Cottage Foods can be sold only to individuals, never to businesses for resale. That still gives you plenty of excellent opportunities though. Farmers’ markets would be the obvious first choice, but you could also take orders by phone and hand deliver your products or have your customers pick them up. You may be able to sell your products at your roadside farm stand, too. Bake sales and charity events offer more possibilities. In some states, you can even take orders online and then deliver your products whatever way works best for you and your customers.

Tips to Help You Get Started

Here are some additional tips to help you get off to a great start.

  • Be professional right from day one. Once you start charging for your creations, it’s no longer just a hobby, it’s a business. It’s important to treat it like one right from the start.
  • Consider your pricing carefully. This is usually the hardest part for new entrepreneurs. Know the worth of your products and don’t be afraid to charge accordingly. Consider the value of your time in addition to the cost of utilities and ingredients. Pricing will vary depending on the market in your area, too. For example, you will be able to charge more for your product in larger cities than you can in small towns or rural areas.
  • Whenever you’re at a market, offer samples of your product and ask for feedback. You should always be willing to tweak your recipes if needed.
  • Grow it yourself! If you’re growing a garden anyway, why not grow extra berries and cucumbers that can be made into jams, jellies, and pickles to sell at the market alongside your fresh produce?
  • Take advantage of the social media craze. Set up a Facebook page and show pictures of your yummy creations, your cooking process, or even your homestead. Be sure to make announcements about which markets you’ll be at and what products you’ll have available. Ask friends and family to share your posts. Share your posts in local groups, too. Get the word out however you can!
  • Holidays provide a prime opportunity for selling home baked goods! Consider offering special occasion items and baskets around the holidays for folks that don’t have time to bake their own. You could do a la carte or consider selling holiday baskets that include homemade rolls, cookies, and pies, so your customers don’t have to worry about baking around the holidays at all.
  • Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. You will find that many customers will purchase your product over something from the grocery store simply because they like you and your mission. Spend time chatting with your clients. Include your photo on your labels and website. Tell your story. That’s what people love most about purchasing from a small business!

There’s really no limit to what you can do if you want to put the time in. You could just sell some of your home canned jellies alongside your produce each week, or you could offer freshly baked breads, pies, and more at your weekly market. Many cottage food producers have gone on to become caterers, bakery owners, and even restaurant owners. It’s all up to you!

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