Poultry Vaccines for Use on Organic Farms

eOrganic author:

Dr. Jacquie Jacob Ph.D., University of Kentucky


Vaccination is an effective means to prevent and/or reduce the adverse effects of specific diseases that can cause problems in a poultry flock. Approved vaccines are allowed under the USDA organic standards. Always check with your certification agency before administering any product to your livestock

§ 205.238 Livestock health care practice standard.
(a) The producer must establish and maintain preventive livestock health care practices, including:
(6) Administration of vaccines and other veterinary biologics.
§ 205.603 Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production.
In accordance with restrictions specified in this section the following synthetic substances may be used in organic livestock production:
(a) As disinfectants, sanitizer, and medical treatments as applicable.
(4) Biologics—Vaccines.

Conventional poultry are usually vaccinated against a variety of diseases including Marek's disease, Newcastle disease, infectious bronchitis, Infectious laryngotracheitis, fowl pox, and fowl cholera. Since these diseases can also infect organic poultry, a routine vaccination program is recommended. It is important to note, however, that vaccination is not a substitute for effective biosecurity and sanitation practices.

Tips for Successful Vaccination

  • If a vaccine is mishandled or improperly used, it may result in vaccination failure.  All vaccines are labeled with instructions for use and expiration ´╗┐dates. If the entire flock is not vaccinated properly, the disease may spread.
  • Newly hatched chicks have some passive immunity passed from the mother through the egg. Vaccination of chicks at less than 10 days of age often does not produce uniform or lasting immunity. An exception is the vaccination for Marek's disease, which is ordinarily given on the day of hatch.
  • Rotate vaccine stock, as vaccines can deteriorate over time. Vaccines come with a date of expiration. Any outdated product should be discarded.
  • Each vaccine is designed for a specific route of administration. Use only the recommended route.
  • Do not vaccinate sick birds (except in outbreaks of laryngotracheitis or fowl pox).
  • Protect vaccines from heat and direct sunlight.
  • Most vaccines are living, disease-producing agents. Handle them with care.
  • When using the drinking-water method of vaccination, be sure the water is free of sanitizers and chlorine. Live-virus vaccines are readily destroyed by these chemicals.
  • After vaccinating, burn or disinfect all opened containers to prevent accidental spread to other poultry.

Sources of vaccines

Hatcheries and poultry suppliers are usually the best sources of vaccines. Poultry vaccines are produced in large dose vials intended for commercial use. This is for the convenience of vaccine manufacturers and commercial producers who often have several thousand birds to vaccinate at one time. This, however, should not prevent vaccination of smaller-sized flocks. Think of the cost on a per bird basis rather than on a per vial basis. Plan to vaccinate the entire flock at one time. You can contact other small producers in your area and organize a group to buy a vial together and vaccinate both your flock and theirs. This also helps protect your flock because you will be sure that other flocks around your farm are vaccinated.


Marek's Disease

Marek's disease vaccine should be given to chickens on the day they hatch, typically in the hatchery. It is given by an injection under the skin on the back of the neck. Once the chicks leave the hatchery, they have probably been exposed, and the vaccine is less effective. The vaccine only prevents the appearance of Marek's disease tumors and paralysis. It does not prevent the birds from becoming infected with and shedding the Marek's virus. Chickens under 16 weeks of age are the most susceptible to Marek's disease. While turkeys and game birds (i.e., pheasants and quail) can get the disease, they are not normally vaccinated against Marek's.

Newcastle Disease

Chickens and turkeys are routinely immunized against Newcastle disease. The vaccine contains an attenuated virus. This means that the virus is alive but its ability to cause disease has been significantly reduced. It can be given in the drinking water, or as eye/nose drops. Killed virus vaccines are often given to pullets via injection just prior to the onset of egg production.

Newly hatched chicks can be vaccinated at the hatchery but chicks vaccinated for Newcastle disease cannot be shipped through the mail. A combined Newcastle and infectious bronchitis attenuated vaccine is typically given between 10 and 35 days. For breeder and layer chicken flocks the vaccine needs to be repeated at 3-month intervals to maintain a sufficient level of immunity. Alternatively, a killed virus vaccine can be given when the pullets are transferred from the growing barn to the layer house (18–20 weeks of age). Further vaccinations should not be required with this vaccine type. In breeder flocks, however, the high antibody level obtained by repeated vaccinations will assure that passive immunity is passed through the egg to the developing chick.

If you purchase pullets or mature chickens to add to your vaccinated flock, they can be vaccinated with Newcastle disease (B-1) vaccine via drinking water, intraocular, or intranasal routes. The more reactive LaSota Newcastle disease vaccine is then given 4 weeks later.

Turkeys are often vaccinated against Newcastle disease at 4 weeks of age, and again when the breeders are housed.

Infectious Bronchitis

Infectious bronchitis is often combined with Newcastle in a single vaccine. It can be given at the hatchery or at 10–35 days of age. It is a modified live-virus vaccine, typically containing bronchitis virus of the Massachusetts serotype. Vaccines are only effective if they contain the right serotype of virus for a given area. Do not vaccinate during an outbreak.

Infectious Laryngotracheitis

State approval is required prior to vaccination against Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT). Do not vaccinate unless you have a problem on your farm or in your area. If a producer chooses to vaccinate, all chickens on the premises must be vaccinated, including any new birds that are added later. Yearly boosters are advised. The virus is an attenuated vaccine and if some of the chickens do not receive vaccines the virus can transfer between them and reactivate the virus. In such cases, a poor vaccination can result in an outbreak of the disease.

The vaccine is administered by the eye or nose drop method. Birds should be at least 4 weeks old. Younger birds are less responsive to vaccines.

Rapid diagnosis and vaccination can also stop an outbreak from spreading in an infected flock.

Fowl Pox

In addition to fowl pox, there are a number of different pox viruses—pigeon pox, quail pox, canary pox, psittacine pox, and ratite pox. Pigeon pox infects pigeons, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. Canary pox infects canaries, chickens, sparrows, and probably other species. In some instances, but not always, exposure to one of the viruses stimulates development of immunity to that virus and one or more of the other viruses. Most of the poxes can be prevented in chickens, turkeys and pigeons by vaccination, but there is no effective commercial vaccine against canary pox.

Chickens and pigeons are usually vaccinated by the wing web stick method. An applicator with two slotted needles is dipped in vaccine and thrust through the wing web. Turkeys are not generally vaccinated by the wing web route. Turkeys sleep with their head under the wing. Conjunctival (eye) pox can occur if the vaccine is administered to turkeys via the wing web. Instead, turkeys are vaccinated by a thigh-stick method.

On farms with severe fowl pox problems, vaccination of all domestic poultry may be necessary. All domestic chicks and poults can be vaccinated at 1 day of age, pullets at 10–12 weeks, and turkeys at 8–14 weeks or when moved to range. In endemic areas, the prevailing virus type should be determined.

Quail pox has been shown to affect chickens. There is no cross protection between quail pox and fowl pox. Vaccination for both may be necessary if both are endemic in the area. Flocks can be given fowl pox vaccination to reduce the severity of an outbreak.

Do not vaccinate unless you have a problem on your farm or in your area. The virus is spread from bird to bird through the bites of blood-sucking insects (such as mosquitos) or through wounds and scratches by the birds when fighting. If there is a heavy mosquito infestation in an area, small flock owners may consider vaccinating with fowl pox vaccine.

In problem areas requiring fowl pox vaccination of baby chicks, the flock should be revaccinated after reaching 8 weeks of age or older to assure lasting immunity.

Fowl Cholera

Fowl cholera affects most birds including domestic fowl (primarily chickens and turkeys), game birds (especially pheasants), ducks, cage birds, wild birds, and birds in zoological collections and aviaries. Do not vaccinate for fowl cholera unless you have had a problem on your farm or in your area.

There are two types of fowl cholera vaccines—live attenuated viruses and inactivated bacterins. The oral vaccine is a live attenuated culture that is administered in the drinking water. Such vaccines are available for chickens and turkeys. Oil-emulsion bacterins require a series of two injections given at 4 week intervals.

Vaccination Programs

Vaccination programs for individual farms will vary depending on the local conditions, disease status in the area and individual preferences. Examples of different vaccination programs can be found in the Merck Veterinary Manual Online. For more information about vaccines, refer to the Cobb-Vantress Vaccination Procedure Guide and the University of Florida publication Investigating Vaccination Failure in Poultry Flocks.

NOTE:These resources have not been reviewed by eOrganic for NOP certification compliance. Before applying ANY product, be sure to 1) read and understand the safety precautions and application restrictions, and  2) make sure that the product is listed your Organic System Plan and approved by your certifier. See also the eOrganic article on Records Needed for Organic Poultry Production.

References and Citations


Published October 29, 2013

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.