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.
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.