Protecting your chickens from Marek’s Disease the Natural Way.
A little history.
In the early 1950's I was a frustrated New York City kid given to reading poultry mail order
catalogs cover to cover. I am sure I never saw mention of Marek’s disease or vaccinations of any kind as a service the hatcheries offered. Marek’s did exist in those days, but it was uncommon, it had yet to be isolated and identified as the Herpes virus it is, and there was no vaccine.
Little did we know or appreciate the fact that keeping chickens in small flocks, especially in a
multi-species barnyard, created a lot of protection from getting Marek’s or any other poultry
disease. The push to grow chickens in larger and larger flocks - mono crops! - which became the industry standard in the 60's, created the ideal environment for many poultry diseases to become more common and more virulent. Many of these diseases have been able to get outside the poultry barns and become common among chickens in small flocks.
So the relative safety of chickens that we enjoyed 70 years ago is a thing of the past. The
industrial response to this problem has been to develop vaccines that can protect birds from the most common diseases. I have routinely vaccinated our breeder flocks against 8 diseases that
free range birds can encounter in BC. And when people phoned me to ask how to protect their flock from Marek’s it was a one word answer: “Vaccinate!” From 1975 until 2019 Marek’s vaccine was available in small vials (200 doses) costing less than $20 back then and easy to store
and use. More and more small flock holders were vaccinating the chicks they hatched and buying vaccinated chicks. It was wonderful to see the rate of Marek’s Disease declining!
No vaccine for small flocks!
In 2019 the pharmaceutical companies that make poultry vaccines decided to stop supplying the small vials in Canada. The older vaccine is still approved by the CFIA, and it is still available mail order in the U.S., but you can’t buy it in Canada. The new Marek’s vaccines can only be purchased by vets and hatcheries, and only in 2,000 dose vials. They are more fragile and must be shipped and stored in liquid nitrogen. So my one word answer to protecting your birds, “Vaccinate!”, is no longer possible for most of us. So, what to do?
First of all, don’t imagine that your unvaccinated birds don’t have Marek’s. Marek’s develops slowly and ‘quietly’, as little tumors that become bigger tumors, that eventually cause lameness, blindness or organ failure. Every time you find a dead hen with none of the usual symptoms of respiratory disease or reproductive accident, Marek’s is the most likely cause. Open up the mystery deaths and just take a look at their innards and the spine from the inside view. If the bird was not protected from Marek’s the chances are good that you’ll see tiny white dots on the organs, and white swellings on the nerve branches coming out from the spine. That’s Marek’s.
Share a vial with some friends.In some places in BC people have been able to share a vial of Marek’s vaccine by having it shipped to a local vet with a nitrogen tank, synchronizing their
hatches, and then on the hatch day the vet reconstitutes the vaccine and puts it into syringes for people in the group to pick up and inject their new chicks. But it is only good for 90 minutes, so this takes an uncommon degree of cooperation, and of course it is only good for one hatch day. Mail order to a US address.Another way to do it is to get a US address (a friend, a post office box, a mailing service) and buy the old Marek’s vaccine mail order. It is shipped with ice packs and must be kept cold, so don’t let it sit in the post office for a few days. You can pick it up and take it across the border legally because it is still approved by the CFIA. The vials must be stored in your fridge, but they are small. The bottles of diluent are 200ml and can be stored at room temperature.
Or do it the natural way. A little more history. For quite a while after Marek’s had become a serious threat to commercial flocks, backyard and small flocks continued to be relatively safe
from it. Scientists discovered that it was the keeping of turkeys with the chickens that
provided the protection. Turkeys, which are native to the Americas, always carry the turkey
species of Marek’s - it’s everywhere - but since the turkeys and the virus have evolved together,
turkey Marek’s is benign. It does no harm to turkeys, or any other poultry. So chicks, hatched
without Marek’s and being raised with turkeys pick up turkey Marek’s. This prompts their
immune systems to develop immunity to all species of Marek’s, which protects them when they
are exposed to chicken Marek’s. In fact, one of the first vaccines that was developed for
chickens was actually just turkey Marek’s in a bottle!
If you want to take advantage of this nice connection, get some turkey poults and raise them on your farm. You can rear them together with chicks - the chicks are actually good helpers to get the baby turkeys clued in to eating and drinking. They should be separated after about 2 weeks because growing turkeys need higher protein food than chicks. But after the turkeys are close to full grown choose a hen or tom that you like and keep that one. You only need to keep one turkey as long as your birds mix together.
What about Blackhead? This microscopic parasite is not common in Canada because the cecal worms that might carry them from a chicken to a turkey can’t survive in cold temperatures. If you get your chicks from flocks that are not carrying Blackhead you can keep turkeys with chickens and it is very unlikely that Blackhead will get into your flock. Very few cases of Blackhead have ever been diagnosed in BC.