Helping your chickens survive the summer heat

Summer has made its arrival here in Nebraska with the heat index bringing us into triple digits. This can be deadly for chickens who can’t sweat to cool off. We’ve lost one broiler chick and the rest of our flock hangs out in the shade, wings lifted away from their bodies and panting.

Helping chickens survive the summer heat

As the heat increases, chickens slow down. They forage less and chase each other less. Layers may stop laying and meat birds may stop gaining weight. All of this signals heat stress which can be alleviated with some simple steps.

1. Select the right birds for your climate.

The most important part of keeping your flock healthy is to start with birds suited to your area. There are heat tolerant breeds, cold tolerant birds and birds that aren’t tolerant to any temperature extremes whatsoever (like broilers). Don’t build your flock based solely on looks, egg laying potential or what is available at the feed store. Know their preferences. Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart is a great place to find this information. At the very least, this will help you devise a plan to help your birds through temperature extremes they are not well suited to.

2. Plan your chicken coop with the climate in mind.

A roof slanted toward the summer sun will absorb more heat. A well-insulated coop will retain more heat and humidity. A coop built off the ground allows air flow under the coop, helping to keep bedding dry, thus reducing the humidity (and the smell!) A screened window (or hole covered in chicken wire) can make a huge difference on a hot day, as can free access to the outside where your birds have a choice between the coop’s shade and the summer breeze.

3. Water, water, water.

Warm water is better than no water, but on a hot day, keeping a steady supply of fresh, cool water will go a long way in helping your chickens manage the heat. Throw in some ice cubes to help keep it cool a little longer, especially if you need to be gone for a few hours during the heat of the day.

4. Know the signs of heat stress.

Your chickens will pant when it is hot outside. This is natural and does not necessarily mean you need to rush out and buy an air conditioning unit for their coop, even if you are hitting high temperatures. Except for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, our flock forages all day and shows no particular signs of actual stress. Our layers are laying well and our pullets are continuing to grow at a nice pace despite the triple digit heat. Basically, you need to know your birds and what is normal for them. You should be concerned with a bird that does not react normally. A struggling bird may also lay down in the dirt with wings held loosely and legs stretched behind them. This is an awkward position for a bird to take, particularly a prey species that normally is ready to take flight at a moment’s notice. When getting rid of excess heat becomes more important than fleeing from predators, it is probably past time to bring the bird inside and give it a cooling bath.

Important: Birds will acclimate to the heat over time. If the weather has been warming slowly over the last month, they may get through a heat wave with nothing but shade and some extra water. If the heat comes on suddenly, they will need more attention from you, but some of your cooling efforts can be scaled back as time goes on. Too much intervention can actually make it more difficult for them to acclimate to the heat.

5. Provide shade. And lots of it.

If you do not have shade, your chickens will tend to stay in the coop where air circulation is not as good. A shady spot in their run will provide much more relief from the heat. We have a dog house on one side of our run and a tarp spread out on the other side, though neither are of much use since most of our birds fly over the fence anyway. Instead, they hang out in the corner of an old barn, in the lilac hedge or in our windbreak. Free ranged birds know the coolest spots in their range. You just need to find where they’re going and make sure they don’t have too far to walk to get to their water.

6. Pay attention to the changing position of the sun.

This is particularly important for pastured poultry. A pen in a shady spot in the morning may trap them in full sun in the afternoon.

7. Start making ice packs.

Gallon milk jugs filled partway with water and frozen or Ziploc style baggies full of frozen water work great. Overheated birds will park themselves next to their makeshift air conditioning and drink the condensation as it forms. A pan of ice cubes will also be appreciated, though they are likely to foul them up rather quickly.

8. Mist your chickens.

Chickens don’t sweat, but a fine misting of their feathers will help cool them as it evaporates. Mine run too fast for me to spray them so I figure they aren’t that bad off. I’ve read of chickens who will stand near a sprinkler to take advantage of the spray, though, so it is definitely something to consider.

9. Mist your hen house.

This might bring up your water bill a bit, but consider running a sprinkler or hose over your chicken coop. The water itself will cool the building and the evaporative effect will further contribute to the cooling. If your birds free range like ours, this likely won’t help much but then your birds will also have far more choices of where to go to keep cool.

10. Provide wet sand for them to walk through.

The moisture will help cool their feet and legs as they walk through the sand.

11. Provide a good dust bath.

If you have chickens, you know they love nothing more than a good dust bath. They fluff their feathers, rub their wings and even roll in the loose dirt, trying to get the dust through their feathers and down to their skin. Dust baths help relieve itching, control parasites and are thought to help cool birds. At any rate, they certainly love them and all that feather fluffing has to be good for releasing extra heat! Sand or loose dirt in a shallow container (like a kitty litter pan) is perfect if you don’t have a section of your yard your birds have already turned into a dust bath site.

12. Provide a fan.

Air circulation will help your chickens significantly, especially if they’re locked in a coop for a day. Chickens keep their body temperature around 106 and, well, they’re like little heaters when they’re shut up together. Ventilation and a fan can help keep the coop from getting hotter than the outside temperature while also reducing the humidity.

How are your birds faring this summer? What have you done to help keep them cool? Most of our flock seems to be doing fine, while the broiler chicks are showing signs of stress. It has been a challenge keeping them cool. I just moved them off a table and into a larger, more ventilated pen on a concrete floor hoping to give them a little more relief. They certainly do like their ice packs! If it weren’t for the fact they are my daughter’s 4H project, I would never try raising broilers in the summer.

Free chicken treats, or Organic June bug control

I left the children’s water table under a porch light the other night and woke to my walkway carpeted with June bugs.

I thought what any chicken owner would think: FREE FOOD!

My chickens were delighted. So the next night I made sure the water table was parked there and placed a bucket under our other porch light. Suddenly I’m motivated to fix the other two outdoor lights we have.

What’s more, June bugs are a bit of a pest, defoliating shrubs and trees in early spring. By mid summer, their grubs are ready to start damaging your lawn and even your vegetable patch.

A healthy lawn is usually able to handle a mild attack of June bug larva, but they can become a problem when conditions are dry (as they usually are here in Nebraska come August) or if the larva population is just too large. My chickens are doing their part to keep the numbers under control!

I may even go sweep up all the beetles that crash land on my sidewalk and patio. I think they’ll store nicely in a bucket until morning.

On slaughtering our first chickens

Well, we finally did it. We slaughtered four of our five Cornish Crosses in the front yard under a crab apple tree. Yes, along with the bathtub and refrigerator sitting on the porch, we make great neighbors. Fortunately for our neighbors, they all live too far away to care.

Fortunately for you, perhaps, I do not have a working camera so you will be spared any graphic pictures of the process.

I had planned on making a video of our first bird so that the whole world could watch with me as I either followed through or chickened out. Alas, that shall not be…although perhaps I should mention that it was my husband who actually did the killing. I was charged with the supporting role, that of chicken holder and instruction giver.

Not that I had a clue what I was talking about, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’m just giving you a little time to decide whether you really want to go through with reading this. While there may not be any actual pictures, words can sometimes be just as graphic. So here’s a more pleasant picture, just to help you not think too much about it. Aren’t they cute? The Cornish Cross is the white one.

[Missing picture here]

The first to go was a little hen. It surprised me how incredibly calm the bird was as soon as she was placed on her back, and her neck placed between the two nails designed to keep her head still. My job was to stretch her out, hold her wings and say when. We had a slight discussion about how exactly to kill her; John favored just whacking her head off with the knife. A deep breath and a nod from me and the knife came down.

It  didn’t work. He broke her neck, instead, which isn’t particularly good. She went completely limp as he took the knife and made a quick slice to sever the head.

The flapping was incredible. I didn’t have that good of a hold on her, her being limp and all. The headless chicken flapped off the table, hit my leg (leaving a bit of a bruise, actually) and flopped on the ground until John grabbed the string holding her legs together and tied her up over the bucket that was supposed to catch the blood.

That was the most pointless piece of equipment we had. All the birds flapped too much to get any significant amount of blood actually in the bucket. But that was my first real surprise (beyond the fact that we had actually done it): there really isn’t that much blood.

Chicken number two was Purple Bird, a !@#$%^&*. I thought killing him would bother me more. He was, after all, a bit of a pet. Due to injury, he had spent some time in the house with his legs taped together and became quite tame. He followed me everywhere, came when he was called, and calmed down at the sound of my voice.

See, look at them here at about four weeks. They were all pretty tame. Always hopeful for food, they followed everyone around. If no one was around, they’d peck at the door, just to make sure you remembered they were there in case you had left overs or something.

[Missing picture here]

Maybe I’m just heartless, or maybe there is a certain mental state you can enter to block that all out. One way or the other, I held him on his back, head in position between the two nails and discussed how best to dispatch him. I decided for the jugular. It is supposed to be the best way to bleed the birds out. The only problem was, I wasn’t exactly sure how to find it.

So I ran in to check the internet. Those pictures looked much more like a vein than anything we saw hidden under all those feathers, but opted for a quick slice where I thought the jugular should be.

He hit it perfectly with a good spout of blood following. Purple Bird was too strong for me, however, and flapped right out of my grasp, bruising my arm and fighting like mad as he swung from the bottom of the string.

Unlike the first bird, however, he was clearly aware. He vomited, even. It took maybe 10 seconds until it was over, but it bothered me.

“Stuff the best bleed,” I decided.

I wasn’t putting a bird through that again. Or myself for that matter.

We’re doing this because we like chickens. We like having them around. We enjoy their antics. We enjoy the freedom we can give them. And if we’re going to eat chicken, I prefer it to be one that has had a happy life enjoying fresh air, green grass and whatever insects he can scratch up as opposed to a life in a shed with a clipped beak and a thousand other birds. Purple Bird would have been culled or pecked to death because the treatment for his injury cost more than he was worth. But I feel a certain responsibility to all the animals in our care, and I certainly don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily.

[Missing picture here]

So from that point on, we just severed the heads. Quickly, cleanly and assured that any awareness on the part of the bird was momentary at best.

The flapping was difficult to manage, and two of the birds bruised themselves. In fact, Purple Bird broke his own wing. As in the bone was protruding from the skin. A killing cone, I think, shall be made or purchased before we slaughter (perhaps before we purchase!) another meat bird.

But the hardest part was over. We had actually followed through with it, and slaughtered four birds. They all hung (not so) neatly from our crab apple tree bleeding out and awaiting me to go check the internet again to figure out what to do next.

to be continued

Getting started with chickens

Getting started with chickens is actually quite easy, and not at all expensive. At least it doesn’t have to be. What happens to you next, when you decide to sell your house in the suburbs and move to five acres in the country so your chickens have room to roam and your property has room for a few dozen more…well, that part can get expensive.

getting started with chickens

Before you get your first chicks.

The first thing you need to do is figure out why you want chickens. For show? For eggs? For meat? I’m guessing most beginners are looking for eggs and an interesting pet.  Layers are a little a less fussy to care for, but they are a time investment. You will have to care for them for approximately six months before they lay their first egg and then they lay productively for about three years. The average chicken can live seven years, however, so you will need to figure out now what to do with your retired hens. Many people just keep them on as pets, some give them away (where they likely end up in the stew pot) and some put them in the stew pot themselves.  Dual purpose breeds are generally pretty hardy and a little less flighty than the layers. They don’t lay as much, but they have a little more meat left over at the end of laying than layers do. Don’t expect a nice plump chicken, though. They look a bit like a rubber chicken when dressed! I promised our children that we’d keep the first four on like pets, but to get used to the idea now that subsequent chicks were destined for the table when their laying days were over.

We’ll see how mom handles that one when the time comes.

Know the law regarding chickens.

Before starting chicks, know what the law is in your area. Your state Department of Agriculture should be able to help you, and it is only a matter of a few phone calls or emails. It is quite common for residential areas to limit you to three hens and to restrict roosters, but it varies widely.

Selecting your first chicks.

When you are sure you are ready for the commitment, it is time to figure out exactly which chickens you want. Henderson’s Breed Chart is an excellent resource for figuring out what breed will work for you. It gives you information about how many eggs to expect, what color the eggs are, how friendly the birds are, how flighty, how well they do on pasture, and how cold hardy they are and more, all in a nice chart that allows for easy comparison. Availability of chicks is something to consider as you look at the chart, however. If you’re ordering from a hatchery, you can get pretty much anything but expect a minimum order of 25 (or the inclusion of extra roosters for packing peanuts). If you’re purchasing from a feed store, you will be limited to a few breeds. Know what they are and compare them.

At the store, make sure the chicks look healthy before buying them. Baby chicks actually have a high mortality rate, and there is no sense bringing sick or pitiful looking ones home to “rescue” them. It almost always ends badly. They should be lively, and a bit skittish, running away when you try to catch them. They should also be clean, and their food and water should be relatively clean. I say relatively because you will find out very quickly that it is impossible to keep the bedding out of their dishes, so you have to forgive a bit of bedding.

What to buy for your chicks.

Chicks, chick starter (medicated or unmedicated…we start them on medicated and switch to unmedicated when they feather out. All the medication is out of their system long before they begin to lay.), a feeder, a waterers and a heat lamp.  You do not need grit so long as your chicks are fed chick starter exclusively.

Setting up the brooder.

OK, so really you should have thought about this before you bought your chicks. Your brooder should be sitting in a warm, draft free place complete with feeder, waterer and heat lamp, all ready for your baby chicks. But who does that? I didn’t for my first four, nor for the 18 we just purchased last week.  Brooders can get expensive. A nice one ordered from the hatchery can run you over $250, and it will be a long time before you have enough eggs to justify that kind of investment.

But essentially all you need is somewhere to keep your birds warm and protected, and you can easily make your own or repurpose something else you have lying about the house. Our first brooder for four chicks was an old guinea pig cage. We’re using a dog kennel for the 18 we have now, which works as well for keeping dogs out as it does for keeping dogs in.  It can also double as a chicken tractor later when you set it on the lawn while you clean the mess they make on the garage floor.  Rubbermaid storage containers are a popular do it yourself brooder, and you can even use cardboard boxes.

Finding the right temperature.

Chicks need to be kept at 95 degrees their first week, with temperature needs lowering each week until they feather out. You can get a thermometer, and this is what is nice about commercial brooders. They come with a thermostat, taking some of the guesswork out. But you can also just ask your chicks. They’ll tell you whether they are too hot or too cold.

If all your chicks  huddle together under the heat lamp, they’re cold. Try lowering the heat lamp or providing insulation. I have a quilt over our kennel to keep some of the heat in, and the first week we had them in a box inside the kennel. This was mainly because some were small enough to fit through the bars, but the sides of the box also warmed under the heat lamp, helping to hold the heat in more. You may need to move them to a warmer location, like your basement or laundry room.

If your chicks are all as far from the heat lamp as they can get, they are too warm. Try raising the heat lamp or moving it to the side so they can get away from the heat.

Ideally, when you look at your chicks, they should be all over. Some under the lamp, some at the feeder, some at the waterer, some resting in another corner. This is harder to see if you only have a couple chicks, but if even a couple are always under the heater or always as far from it as they can get, you know the temperature is a little off.

Once their down is replaced with feathers, you can remove the heat lamp and put them in their outdoor coop. If protected from the wind in a small area where their body heat can warm the air, they can withstand temperature down to zero without any ill effects. Below that and you really need to consider some supplemental heating.

What to watch for in your new chicks.

Chicks die.

They’re really good at it. I’ve read that you should figure on losing up to 20%, but fortunately am yet to lose a chick. There’s a thousand things they die from, but essentially there are a few things you can do to increase your chances. Keep them warm, but not too warm. Keep them out of drafts, but be sure air can circulate. Clean their brooder regularly so they aren’t continually pecking at their own filth. Clean their feed and water dishes regularly. Remember that it is 95 degrees in there and there is no way you’re keeping chicken poo out of the water. It turns gross fast. I change their water and rinse out the container several times a day, wash it daily, and disinfect it regularly.

Also watch for what is known as “pasty butt.” It can be fatal, but is so simple to fix there’s no reason it has to be. Basically, a bit of poo gets stuck to their bottom, covering their vent and not allowing more poo to come out. You just need to get it off. Most things I’ve read suggest dipping those tushes in warm water and gently cleansing the area.  If the chick loses a bit of fluff back there, it may peep in complaint but it won’t do any long term damage and that is far better than just letting it die!

Get to know some people with experience.

My favorite source of information is the forums at Backyard Chickens. It has 50,000 members, many of whom are self-professed chicken addicts. They have a wealth of experience and are more than happy to answer your questions. You usually even get a response within fifteen minutes or so if you are having a problem. And of course, you are welcome to drop me a line, either through my contact form or my facebook page!

Enjoy your chicks!

Watch them often, and hold them daily. Feel their soft down, and take pleasure in the constant peeping. Let your children hold them, but be cautious with this. You don’t want to get your children sick! My children are allowed to hold them pretty much whenever they want. I try to keep them from kissing them and I give them a bit of hand sanitizer when they’re done.  The children have never had any adverse effects, and it sure makes for tame birds. Two of our hens even follow me around, let me pick them up and seem to enjoy the occasional scratch behind the head.

There is nothing like a curious and affectionate child to tame the entire flock.

We’re getting ready to make a more proper chicken tractor for our birds that will be large enough to house all the layers and I’ll share that process when we get to it!

Why chickens?

Discussing our new chicks on Twitter, I was asked the same question over and over. “Why? Why chickens?” Some had chickens and were curious about how our family got started, some were sort of kind of entertaining the idea, some seemed to think I (and everyone going on about chickens) were a little unhinged and one wanted to bring her husband around. So, in answer to this one great question, I give you

The Roscommon Acres Definitive Guide for Why You, Too, Should Consider Chickens

Why Chickens

Chickens are educational.

From breed selection through their first precious eggs and beyond, you will amazed at how much there is to learn about and from chickens.  As a homeschooling family, our primary interest was the lessons to be learned.  We learned a little about meat birds, though layers were our focus, and discovered the wonderful world of dual purpose breeds.  Then heritage breeds. Then this whole issue of industrial agriculture and what it means for the genetic diversity of the simple chicken as they are continually selectively bred for larger breasts or greater egg production.  Right now, we are comparing the development of a Cornish Cross, the standard in meat production, to the Plymouth Rock, a heritage breed that can be used both as a meat bird and a layer.  Stay tuned for periodic updates on their comparative development, dressing weights and flavor as we blog their little lives all the way to the dinner table.

Without chickens, there can be no eggs.

Yes, of course you can get those watery things from the grocery store.  But once you find that first, beautiful egg in the nest box, you know that eggs from backyard chickens are happier, healthier and better looking.  The yolk is a deeper color, the whites stiffer, the shells harder.  And then there is just the sense of accomplishment. Of raising something yourself and reaping the benefits of your labor. You may find yourself peeking in the refrigerator, just to look at the eggs, and then you will know there is something special about these eggs beyond any proposed health benefits.

Chicken poo is the black gold of gardening.

Simply put, if you garden, you have a use for chickens. Chicken manure is rich in nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash, as well as organic matter that will build soil while nourishing your plants. Trust me. Your plants will thank you. Just remember that chicken poo is HOT. If not composted prior to applying, you risk burning your plants. As an added bonus (if you have enough chickens, anyway), you can use the manure in a hotbed, and use that hot composting action to warm seedlings outside the normal growing season.

Chickens are good insect control.

Chickens are omnivores, but you haven’t seen a chicken live until you’ve watched it chase bugs. My chickens will spot an earthworm on my shovel from across the yard and come racing, necks outstretched and wings flapping to get to it before I finish turning the soil. They provide excellent control for ticks, flies, mosquitoes, ants, slugs, snails and just about anything else they can catch.

Chickens are good tillers.

At the end of the growing season, turn your chickens loose on your garden. They will finish off the green stuff you leave standing, scratch and turn the soil in the continual hunt for insects and dust baths, decrease the number of hibernating and pupating pests and leave a nice layer of fertilizer to get you started for next year.

Chickens make great garbage disposals.

Think of them as pigs with feathers. Carrot peelings, left over oatmeal, bits of spaghetti…garbage to you and treats to a chicken.  Feeding chickens your kitchen scraps puts your garbage to good use while lowering your feed cost.  There’s very little they won’t eat, but I’ve read that you shouldn’t feed them potato peelings, avocado, dry beans or eggplant.

Chickens are good therapy.

Everyone I talk to who owns chickens spends time just watching their flock. Sure, it is good practice to spend a lot of time watching any animal in your care. Especially in chickens, where their signals that something is wrong are slight. But that isn’t why we do it. We do it because it feels good. Because in that moment, things are still and quiet and you can let your mind wander. Because there’s nothing quite like a freshly laid egg to warm your hands on a brisk morning. Because touching and frying and tasting the products of your labor brings meaning to breakfast that can never come from a styrofoam carton at WalMart.

Chickens are political.

While there are cities across the nation that are quite friendly to chickens (would you believe that even New York City allows an unlimited number of hens?!), there are others which just don’t quite seem to get it. If your area doesn’t allow chickens, ask around. You might be surprised to stumble upon a vast underground chicken movement.  Citizens nationwide are banding together and working to change legislation to allow small backyard flocks. Their arguments and tactics are actually very similar to that of the homeschool movement, and you may be surprised to find liberals and conservatives working together to change the same laws for some of the very same reasons. Kinda like us homeschoolers.

Chickens build community.

They are an oddity, especially if you live in an urban or suburban area. A few fresh eggs delivered here or there normally quells any initial worry about the smell or the noise people seem to glean from stereotypes, and you just might find your neighbor looking over the fence at your flock busy with some weeding or insect control. Our old place backed up against a baseball field, and one afternoon, a woman came and asked if she could photograph our chickens who were running free about the backyard. She was delighted at how such a simple little animal made the connection between town and country seem closer.  Neighbors stopped to look in the coop, children asked to pet them and strangers spontaneously began talking about their chickens, or their grandmother’s flock they remembered growing up. One of our neighbors even helped us with the construction of the roost.

Convinced?  Check out my entry on getting started with chickens.  Still looking for more information? Ask away! I may not know the answer, but I’ll do my best to help you find it!

Do you have chickens? Tell us all about them!