Raising backyard chickens includes threat of salmonellosis

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Chickens in yard

Hens in the backyard are once again a familiar sight in many communities, but they can be a source of salmonellosis, reason for a cautious approach. Chickens are not pets.

Many people moving to the Ozarks hope for a more rural lifestyle, and many of them want to raise all or a portion of their food. A convenient and relatively inexpensive way to initiate family food production is with poultry, according to Randy Wiedmeier, livestock specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

“Poultry can provide both meat and eggs and do it relatively efficiently,” says Wiedmeier. Many metropolitan and urban areas, including Springfield, allow poultry production within certain limits. No roosters are allowed, for example. They crow, you know.

But a basket of eggs, or even a chicken in every freezer, comes with some cautionary advice. Although poultry, and especially eggs, are considered to be high-quality protein sources for human diets, it is important to remember that poultry and reptiles can harbor a bacterium called salmonella.

“I know that many of my friends and neighbors who have recently moved to the Ozarks start small flocks of laying hens or raise a batch of broilers. Many times I notice that these flocks don’t receive proper care, not because of a lack of ambition but due to a lack of knowledge,” he warns. “That can lead to problems with salmonella.”

Salmonella enteritidis is the bacterium sometimes harbored by chickens and other poultry. This type of salmonella can cause severe upsets in the gastrointestinal tract of humans. Symptoms include nausea, abdominal cramping, high fever, vomiting and severe diarrhea. After infection, symptoms can develop in as little as 12 hours and up to 72 hours.

Baby chickens at Estes Nursery are a popular purchase these days in urban areas.

Baby chickens at Estes Nursery are a popular purchase these days in urban areas.

These symptoms can persist from four to seven days. Normally, people recover without hospitalization, but children under the age of 5 years, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems often require the attention of health professionals. Reason enough to remind parents and their kids that chickens and chicks are not pets to be snuggled and mollycoddled.

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported eight multistate outbreaks of salmonellosis involving 611 people in 45 states. Of those infected, 195 were under 5 years old, 138 required hospitalization and 88 percent had direct contact with poultry. The CDC said most of these outbreaks followed Easter, when children receive gifts of chicks or ducklings.

“Good sanitation is important when handling any livestock. After handling chickens or gathering eggs, a good handwashing with soap and water is advised, especially if you are around those who are most susceptible,” says Wiedmeier. He recommends that sanitation associated with backyard hens should go beyond washing your hands after gathering the eggs or handling the chickens.

“First, wash the eggs with soap and water. Then store them in the refrigerator in a separate container,” said Wiedmeier. “Keep the chicken coop as clean as possible, especially the nest boxes, and avoid feeding the chickens spoiled table or garden refuse.”

Besides sanitation, proper cooking is also important in the prevention of salmonellosis.

“I encourage the backyard production of poultry and eggs. It will supply the family with some high-quality protein and teach youth about the responsibility of caring for animals that produce food,” advises Wiedmeier. “Just be sure to educate yourself about the management factors associated with food production.”

MU Extension has guide sheets available online at extension.missouri.edu about dealing with poultry issues. These include G8350, “Managing a Family Chicken Flock,” G8351, “Brooding and Growing Chicks,” G8352, “Nutrient Requirements of Chickens and Turkeys,” G8353, “Incubation of Poultry,” G8903, “Prevention of Poultry Disease” and G8904, “Control of Poultry Disease Outbreaks.”

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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