silkie 2009This is like asking how long is a piece of string!

Believe me when I say that string can cause a lot of problems unless handled correctly.

First as a responsible poultry keeper, and yes even if you have only 2 birds you are a poultry keeper, you need to consider your own area and you need to consider the safety of your flock as well as those next door or even miles away. Serious contamination by viruses such as Newcastle, endemic in South Africa, is achieved via the aerial route. So you may not think your Newcastle problem is the neighbour’s because he lives three miles away…think again. Air borne viruses can travel 10 miles.

Immunity is not built up overnight. It takes years and many generations before you see the value of what you are doing, and this is why many people give up, not willing to put the time the energy or the work involved in building a strong gene pool. The rewards are so worth it when you have flocks that grow well,  and that grow evenly too,that use up all the feed you are putting into them, and which you don’t have to dose every five minutes with antibiotics. (See antibiotics good bad and awful on this site).Believe me the cost can be prohibitive. The cost in time and effort to begin with is massive, yes, but look at what you are creating, see the good you have produced! Look back in two or three years and then say it was not worth it. The breeds you have suddenly can achieve their potential instead of being stunted at the starting gate by various diseases.

No bird will ever grow beyond his own potential, but how many breeders do you know who have managed to take their respective breeds to the absolute potential of their birds? Some have very good birds, but without a good vaccination programme, a good feeding programme and good husbandry, the potential remains just a dream on the horizon. You never see it to its conclusion.

Would you rather see comments on your birds at a show that say the bird has potential, or comments that say your bird has fulfilled his potential and has achieved all he can be?

Vaccinations are a part of that.

If you have a vaccination programme that is basic and covers all the nasty viruses you should be fine. It is optional whether you choose to vaccinate against bacterial infections as well.

I would suggest the basics to be:

1. Newcastle. There are many different types but the common ones are usually adequately covered by the Hitchner vaccine at 7 days and the La Sota vaccine at 12 days. The Hitchner covers Newcastle and Infectious Bronchitis. There are vaccines that cover only Newcastle, which you can use if you have broilers and if the field challenge is severe, that is if you have a Newcastle problem already on your farm. It is wise then to do Newcastle first, then wait seven days and do Infectious Bronchitis. These two being respiratory viruses are similar in presentation and are about the only two vaccines that can be combined with no adverse effects.

Your basic Hitchner strain is a mild vaccine which really only sensitises the birds to the more potent La Sota strain at 12 days. The La Sota  can also be combined with Infectious Bronchitis quite safely. Again should you wish to do the Newcastle individually and then Infectious Bronchitis individually, wait seven days before administering the second vaccine. You CANNOT start with the La Sota as it is quite strong and will more than likely cause a reaction, called vaccine virus, where the babies sneeze and cough as though infected with Newcastle. This usually clears up by itself but can cause retardation in the growth process and make the birds quite ill. Some may die. Play it safe, use the Hitchner. You may find that the first time you use the Hitchner followed by the La Sota combination, you may have a reaction. Several years down the line, there will not be a reaction at all.

With your Hitchner is usually attached the IB (Infectious Bronchitis) vaccine as well. These can be incorporated safely in one vaccine.

The vaccine is known as ND/IB Hitchner, and ND/IB La Sota.

These are water based vaccines very easy to use. Mix as per instructions.

2. Gumboro, also known as IBD (Infectious Bursal Disease) is the next one to administer at 21 days.

This disease is also endemic in South Africa and is known as Gumboro because of the transference of infections via the gum boots of staff.

3.POX, which is given at 6 weeks is very important especially for a show bird. Scarring can be very bad and there goes your show bird, that is unless the infection is so severe the birds die. I have always done Pox on my flock, I never miss the 6 week deadline as it is very important. Pox is transmitted via mosquito bites and it spreads rapidly especially if the immunity of the flock is poor.

The vaccine is administered via a pronged needle and injected through the wing web.

After a week there should be two little bumps where the needle was introduced. If not, do the vaccine again.

4. MG Mycoplasma Gallisepticum. This is a very important vaccine as MG is an underlying virus that will lurk inside the bird and surface in times of stress, high heat, fear, overcrowding, lack of feed or water.

If the birds are positive for MG every other virus and every other bacterial infection then has a field day. Vaccinating against MG at 8 weeks and again at 15 weeks gives you basic cover against a lot of other viruses, especially respiratory ones.

A flock clean of MG thrives, all babies grow uniformly and health problems are minimal. A flock that has uneven growth, stunted birds with very long primary feathers is usually one that has MG.

MG is transferred vertically from mother to egg to chick. It can lie dormant in a bird for months and rear up at the most inconvenient time.

Birds that are seen as “susceptible” to respiratory infections, and tend to need antibiotics very often, are likely to be MG positive.

These are your basics. There are many more vaccinations one can do BUT  you need to do the homework and find out if the diseases you want to include in your vaccine programme are actually prevalent in your area. You need to consider your climate, the conditions in which you keep the birds…are they outside, affected by rain or heat, are they overcrowded, stressed by predators, children, pets, do they free range or not. ( For a table of vaccines see Vaccine For Dummies on this site).

All of this affects the vaccinations you need to consider.

Here are the other diseases you could consider for immunisation:

Infectious Coryza.


Infectious Laryngotracheitis.


Infectious Coryza and Mareks as far as I am concerned are a waste of time these days as so many more varieties of these diseases exist. There are approximately 12 varieties and still counting of Coryza, and the chances of you vaccinating against the right one are minimal.

Mareks, unless you have it in your yard, don’t bother. There are several types of this virus around, and if your yard is clean,  the droppings cleaned every day, cobwebs swept in the nursery run, no wet shavings allowed to allow litter beetles, you should not have Mareks. The vaccine we commonly use for Mareks I have been told by vets is pretty useless. The only one effective is the RISPENS vaccine, which is horribly expensive as it has to be stored in liquid nitrogen containers, not easily available to the backyard farmer. The virus lives in feather dander and in cobwebs. It has a mediary host in the litter beetle, which feed on the dead chicks infected with the virus and therefore transmit it to the next bird.

Infectious laryngotracheitis, also called the caller disease because the birds cough and call much like a child with whooping cough, is a nasty virus . Vaccinating against this disease makes the birds permanent carriers. There is a mild ILT vaccine available now, called MLT (MODIFIED LARYNGOTRACHEITIS) which supposedly does not make the bird a carrier…but similarly does not give good cover either.

Salmonella is only important if you plan to sell your eggs commercially.

Remember that the idea of vaccination is to boost the immune system of your birds, not overwhelm it with 50 different so called immunities so that the system is not sure what it is supposed to do.

Here are a few dos and donts:

1. Do do the basics, but don’t ever vaccinate for more than one disease at a time and leave seven days minimum between vaccinations. You would not take your child to a doctor to give him his BCG his Measles and his Scarlet fever all on the same day. Same applies to birds. There are vaccines you can combine, Newcastle and IB is one but generally do not combine vaccines that are mono doses in the bottle with  another  mono dose vaccine: eg pox and MG.

You need to allow the system to absorb the vaccine and manufacture antibodies.

2. Do consider cleanliness and hygiene as well as the vaccination.

3. Remember that vaccinating is stressful, handle birds gently. Don’t vaccinate on the same day as you are moving a flock or when the weather is very hot or very cold.

4. Don’t listen to uninformed so called experts who will lead you astray. There is an internet that will give you solid advice, vets are always happy to advise and poultry keepers of good reputation that you trust will always help.

Consider always that you do not live in a vacuum: What you do with your birds directly affects every other chicken yard in a ten kilometre radius, and when you travel, you risk infecting other birds with pathogens you carry on your person, on the bottom of your shoes and in your clothing, on your hands.

It seems the USA has a problem now with the spread of measles in the country and everyone is prone to giving his or her opinion on vaccinating versus non vaccinating of children. It is the same thing with birds. You risk infecting other birds if you are irresponsible enough not to insure your flock. If you live on a deserted island, you can do whatever you want, but in built up areas you have responsibility to your neighbours.

These are some of the comments I have heard over the years:

“I have had birds for 20 years, my father and grandfather before me had birds, we never vaccinated against anything and our birds were more healthy than any other birds. We used trusted remedies such as Condies Crystal and potassium permanganate, and that solved everything that could go wrong with our birds”.

Yes well the answer to that is in the first line, the twenty year thing? It does not apply today. You may as well say then that because no one ever vaccinated the children against measles in the old days that you should not do it today. Times change and poultry changes too, so does the environment so do we. There are conditions out there today that grandpa never dreamed of. His food was not genetically modified, his milk treated with all sorts of poisons before he drank it, the air he breathed probably was mainly oxygen…not recycled industrial fumes.

Firstly, viruses are never static, they mutate.

Secondly, the gene strains of the various birds are never static either, they also evolve and mutate.

Thirdly, conditions are never static, they also evolve, devolve, mutate.

So the whole scenario that grandpa had in his day is like chalk and cheese to what we face today. We have to adapt and so does the domestic bird. If you had a time machine that could take you back to grandpa’s day and have his conditions his birds in his area you could probably do what he did! Much as we would love to do that, it is not likely.

With respect to grandpa!

“I vaccinated my birds against pox for the first time ever and many developed the disease anyway. What is the point of this if it is not going to work?”

Vaccination is a time consuming enterprise. It must be done correctly and has to be done regularly every year at the correct time for the birds. If you have never done the vaccination for pox of course you will get a reaction. This does not mean that the vaccine is useless or that you should stop vaccinating. If you do have a strong reaction it means your birds are more at risk than any other birds of getting pox, and the reaction you get called vaccine virus, is proof that the vaccine is actually doing its job, to provide immunity IN THE FUTURE.

Vets will tell you that vaccines show up the vulnerable areas in your poultry operation. When the reaction is virulent, then you know you have a problem and you should continue to vaccinate against the disease that caused the reaction. Don’t for Heaven’s sake stop because the birds are reacting!

When you get to the stage where no reaction is visible, you have achieved your aim of providing optimum protection for your flock. What is more, you have vaccinated one generation and ensured that immunity is processed by the parent stock and will be transferred vertically through the egg to the next generation. Then you begin to see the light at the end of this long tunnel.

You should persist, within two or three years you will eradicate the virus altogether and give strong immunity to the following generations.

“I don’t believe in vaccines. My birds must just get on with it, and if they are not strong enough they must die and the strong ones continue”.

This is extremely short sighted. You are throwing away money if you do not look after the birds and immunise correctly. Those that do survive in this pathetic scenario are more likely not to be the good genetic material you need to carry on your pure breeds. So what are you breeding on? Birds that become less and less like the standard. Immunising a flock does not weaken that flock, it strengthens it so that the immunity can be carried on to the next generation. Once immunity has been processed by the bird’s own immune system, that immune system will pass it onto the chicks, and then the immunity becomes endemic to that flock. The immunity in other words is no longer chemical, it is genetic.


Once your flock has been well immunised against all the nasties you can then start reducing your vaccine programme.

Your flock has internalised all the vaccines that you have diligently administered, and the immunity is now endemic in the flock.

You can (briefly) pat yourself on the back and breathe a sigh of relief!

You can eliminate the bacterial infection vaccines, Coryza being one. You could even allow one flock to have no vaccination against Newcastle or Infectious Bronchitis, and vaccinate every other flock. This requires some work, so that you then decide what you can do without. In dogs, the US (who regulates for all of us God knows why), has decided some viruses only need to be done every other year. The same applies to poultry.

This is so that the system does not build up too much immunity to the detriment of the bird, and in carefully selecting what vaccines to drop, you will at the same time prevent the actual virus from finding a way to combat the vaccine by mutation.

If your flock has been well immunised it gives you more room to work. You can drop all vaccines one season, reinstate the next, or only do half the vaccines this year and all next year. Vaccines do transmit immunity to the next generation. By not vaccinating flock one, vaccinating flock two, and not vaccinating flock three for example, you allow the immunity to grow stronger via the birds themselves with no chemical interference. You have introduced the tools, now allow the birds to use them.