Today most backyard chickens, even the endangered heritage chicken breeds, are ordered online and brought to their new home by the post office in a most convenient fashion. It may be convenient, but how are we to know if our chicks came from healthy stock and clean incubators? If you really want to know, ask your chicken hatchery if they have NPIP certification, or look for the NPIP certification printed in that catalog they always send you.
What Does the NPIP Certification Mean?
The NPIP, or National Poultry Improvement Plan, is a voluntary program overseen by the USDA that monitors flocks and hatcheries. At the basic level, a chicken hatchery with an NPIP certification has been tested and found to be clean of Salmonella, Mycoplasma and low-path Avian Influenza diseases. Farms and hatcheries that volunteer to participate in the NPIP program also must follow standard sanitation, testing and facility guidelines which have been established to ensure that birds stay healthy. The NPIP also offers additional testing and certification to flocks who want to verify that their birds are clean of other specific diseases.
How the NPIP Began
In the 1920s, the budding poultry industry was booming, but so was disease in day-old chicks. Pullorum disease, also known as White Bacillary Diarrhea, was killing up to 80% of chicks that became infected. In 1927, the industry finally found a blood test that would identify Pullorum and an industry group called the International Baby Chick Association began holding meetings with other industry and government leaders in hope of eradicating Pullorum on a national level. Those meetings resulted in legislation that was passed in 1935 by congress, officially forming the NPIP.
Scope of the NPIP
The NPIP was originally formed to combat the prevalent Pullorum disease of the day, but eventually the NPIP broadened the scope of its surveillance program to include the major “vertically transmitted” diseases which are Salmonella pullorum, Salmonella gallinarum, Salmonella enteriditis, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, Mycoplasma synoviae and Mycoplasma meleagridis. These diseases pose a big threat to poultry health, but the real issue is that a vertically transmitted disease comes from the infected parents of the chick in question. If a hen is infected with one of these diseases she can pass it on to her offspring through the egg, much like a human mother can pass HIV, Syphilis or Chlamydia on to her unborn child. For this reason, breeder flocks that take part in the NPIP certification program are tested regularly and NPIP certified hatcheries only receive eggs from certified clean breeder flocks.
As participants of the NPIP program, hatcheries, breeder farms and show bird flocks have to abide by standards and protocols set by the NPIP, most of which revolve around biosecurity. Since the goal is to keep these diseases out of the supply chain, basic biosecurity measures such as traffic control, isolation measures, sanitation standards and pest control play a big part in keeping the birds healthy. It’s all well and good that you test regularly, but a farm needs to ensure that they continue to keep their flocks clean, otherwise they lose their certifications.
Benefits of the NPIP Certification
Aside from the inherent reasons a breeder or commercial farm would want to be certified, there are a few perks associated with it. If the USDA or state veterinarian has to condemn a flock that has contracted a disease like low-path Avian Influenza (the slower, less obvious cousin of the high-path Bird Flu), NPIP members can receive up to 100% reimbursement for the value of the flock lost, whereas non-NPIP members only receive around 25% indemnification. In addition to this economic benefit, many states require all birds coming into the state be from NPIP certified flocks and hatcheries, so if they want to ship birds across the United States or beyond, they need a NPIP certification. Even if you are a small backyard breeder of show birds, having an NPIP certified flock proves to your customers that you care, and you’re a professional worth doing business with.
Why Buy Chicks with the NPIP Certification
I’ve been raising chickens for eggs, meat and show for more than 20 years and I can attest to the fact that raising chicks can be challenging. Mortality rates of otherwise healthy chicks can be daunting, especially when learning how to raise baby chicks for the first time, so don’t set yourself up for disaster, buy birds from a reputable chicken hatchery with an NPIP certification. Even if you were able to keep unhealthy chicks alive long enough to be mature chickens, those birds may carry that disease indefinitely and infect future members of your flock, especially any baby chicks you hatch.
Why I Buy Chicks with the NPIP Certification
Today I buy chicks from a proper chicken hatchery, feather them out and sell them to backyard flock owners or add them to my free range egg flock. Aside from the fact that my free range flock is a biosecurity nightmare, I do keep a reasonably vigilant eye on my basic biosecurity needs such as human traffic control, sanitation, preventing cross contamination between flocks and being sure to only buy clean, healthy chicks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always so careful.
Several years ago I traded a local guy some equipment in exchange for 50-day-old chicks of various breeds. This gentleman was what is known as a hobby hatcher, one of those folks that buys, sells and trades fertile hatching eggs with fellow hobbyists for the sake of hatching them. He had a handful of adults on his farm for breeding and it looked like he was doing a respectable job, or at least he was trying hard. I still envy his skills when it came to hatching eggs since I recall this guy having a really good hatch rate and his equipment looked top notch, but it was what I couldn’t see that caused me problems. I love chicks, I really loved these absolutely gorgeous (and monstrous) Buff Orpington chickens and the odd looking showgirls he included in the batch, but as they grew and matured I started seeing odd neurological issues. Not long after their problems started to show, I painfully watched these gorgeous birds die one by one in an excruciating manner. Panicked, I took several dead birds to the Connecticut Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Uconn for testing, and their very confident diagnosis was Marek’s Disease, a neurological disease that acts much like a viral cancer and has no cure. It quickly became apparent that the whole flock was doomed to perish in a painful way, and I had to do the only humane thing that could be done, which was to euthanize them.
That incident taught me some terrible lessons, lessons I have no desire to relive and certainly will not forget. It still pains me to think of that flock, so much so that I can’t bring myself to use that barn anymore for birds of any age. I’m not one to discourage a hobbyist from buying great birds from a local breeder, but the breeders who know and care have their flocks tested regularly, no matter how small their flock is. NPIP is not a program exclusively for commercial flocks and hatcheries, they have programs specifically tailored to the needs of fancy breeders and small time farms, so when you’re looking to buy birds, even fancy show or rare heritage birds, remember to buy them from an NPIP flock or chicken hatchery. Buy them healthy, keep them healthy and everyone will be happy, including me.
Originally published in 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.