Backyard chickens stay healthy with help from UC researchers, website

Mar 8, 2022

In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of backyard poultry farms as people have taken an increased interest in farming. With raising these animals comes new challenges in taking care of them and ensuring they stay healthy.

However, there is a gap between the needs of these small avian communities in Californians' backyards and the current services available that generally work for service large-scale poultry operations alone.

This is where Beatriz Martinez Lopez, professor of infectious disease epidemiology, and Alda Pires, associate professor for Cooperative Extension and agronomist, come into play. Both in UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the two women work on projects addressing avian influenza, animal health and food safety needs of people raising backyard poultry and livestock.

“Alda has a lot of experience and her work is amazing,” said Martinez Lopez.

To better address the diseases and problems associated with raising birds in the California context, they completed a series of needs assessments to understand the animal health requirements of small farms and backyard chickens.

“It has helped us be more organized and structured in our outreach,” Pires said. “There is a need to apply simple, practical biosecurity plans that are adapted for multiple species to small-scale, backyard and diversified farms.”

Through a multistate project funded by the USDA National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program, they created a website, FARM PPE, for producers to easily access biosecurity plan templates and additional resources. PPE stands for prepare, prevent and evaluate to reduce disease risk.

 “Our clients are benefiting from the structured network we created,” Pires continued. “This website project, FARM PPE, aims to improve uptake of biosecurity measures on small-scale farms, by focusing on farmers and other professionals, including extension educators and veterinarians.”

The website project also created several trainings for farmers and educators to generate consistent messaging for small-scale farms. 

With backyard birds being one of the potential sources of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, it is important to understand how the disease could spread to commercial flocks. The major challenge of the project is the complexity of the human/wildlife interface and the difficulties in predicting where an outbreak may arise.

Together, Martinez Lopez and Pires have published several papers about modeling disease transmission, and the work yields valuable information about hotspots for targeting surveillance strategies and wildlife surveys.

Their professional partnership is rooted in their personal connection; the scientists met as graduate students in 2006 and were delighted to cross paths again at UC Davis.

“Our collaboration started with friendship and our common interests in epidemiology and animal health,” said Pires.

As exemplified by their own careers, Martinez Lopez and Pires stress the importance of networking, getting involved and taking risks. 

“Invite farm advisors and outreach partners from the beginning of the process so that they are part of the team,” Pires said. “That way you can create solutions that will give them the knowledge and resources they need.”