Chickens in Heat Wave Survival Guide
Summer is a critical time for your feathered friends, especially in Australia, where the weather can quickly spike above 40 degrees celsius (100F) for days on end. A heat wave is the last thing we need for our chickens.
Here are some practical tips to help your chickens through the summer months.
MOST COMMON SIGNS OF CHICKEN HEAT STRESS
- Beak parted
Wings away from the body
ARE YOUR CHICKENS OVERWEIGHT?
Chickens that are older or overweight struggle the most in a heat wave.
As do some heavy breeds such as Orpingtons, Light Sussex, Faverolles, and Australorps. These birds need extra care in the summer.
By keeping them within a healthy weight range, you'll reduce their risk of heat stress.
PROVIDE COOL, CLEAN WATER
Did you know that birds refuse to drink hot water? They'd instead go without.
Hence, it's critical to keep their water cool on hot days.
For this reason, I'm not a fan of nipple drinkers or tiny-cup style drinkers during times of extreme heat. They're just too challenging to keep cool, and many journal articles suggest the flock will drink less overall.
Placing the drinker under shade/trees will help significantly. You can also freeze ice cream tubs if you're struggling to keep the water cool. But after asking some fellow chook people their thoughts on iced water, the consensus was that cool or cold water is better than iced.
And if your chickens' water system is automated, don't forget the connecting pipes and hoses, which can be scalding hot during the hottest times of the day!
THE "DRINKER" I USE
I use 9-litre buckets situated in the hen house and the garden's coolest spots for drinking. I replace them daily or every second day, reusing the water in the veggie garden. I like them as they don't tip over when a hen jumps on the brim (the bantam Leghorns can't resist!), especially if I dig them into the soil slightly.
I love them because they're easy to clean, and their mass means they're slower to heat up. The birds can also splash their wattles in it, which must be of some comfort!
QUESTION: "Won't bantams drown in a bucket that big?"
MY ANSWER: I've never had a hen fall in - ever! For young pullets, though, use an appropriately sized water drinker. A massive ceramic dog bowl on a paver would work. Or, add a brick to the bucket.
AIRFLOW OF THE CHICKEN COOP IS CRITICAL
Air FLOW through the coop of the chicken house is critical. Not only for heat management but managing ammonia and respiratory health.
Box style coops can be death traps during a heatwave. If your coop is covered in on three or all sides and doesn't have a gap at the top for heat to escape, cut one! A 6 inch/15cm gap covered by an overhanging eave effectively removes trapped heat in a coop. Also, remove any perspex windows and replace them with wire mesh.
If you're unsure if the chicken house has sufficient ventilation, check it on a hot night. Do your birds look hot and stressed? Again, avoid stress in your chickens, even at night!
Tip: Get down to their level and feel how hot it is up close to the birds. If it's hot and stuffy and shows signs of heat stress (beaks open, rapid breathing), you probably need more ventilation.
Night temperatures are just as important as day temperatures, as warm nights are very stressful for chickens. You'll be surprised how much heat even a couple of hens generate. There also needs to be enough roosting space for them not to be squished together.
MESH FLOORING? MOVE UNDER SHADE
I see many designs of poultry housing with metal mesh flooring - ouch for feet on hot days! These designs are excellent for predator protection, but you need to have them under shade on hot days.
HEAT STRESS SUPPLEMENTS
This product can seriously save large birds on hot days. Have a sachet of Natural Vet Co 35oC Heat+Stress on hand for those unpredictably hot stretches of weather. Prime them up in the three days leading up to a heatwave. This is a vitamin supplement, not an electrolyte mix.
LET THEM FREE RANGE OR MOVE TO SHADE
On days around 40 degrees, allow your hens to free-range if you can. They will naturally find the coldest part of the garden. Mobile coops should be moved under shade.
MOVE THEIR WATER TO WHERE THEY ARE
Make it as easy as possible for them to access their water. If they are free-ranging, move their water to where they are.
LOW NESTING BOXES AND PERCHES
As we know, hot air rises. So lower perch heights (relative to the height of their coop) will help. Nesting boxes should also be located at ground level to stay calm. A hen can take up to 40 minutes to lay an egg; that's a long time on a hot day! Chickens don't naturally lay in nests in trees. They feel safer closer to the ground.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON'T HAVE SHADY TREES IN YOUR YARD
White-washing or painting surfaces white to reflect the sun is not a new concept. But it can reduce the core temperature of your hen house.
INSULATION OF CHICKEN COOP
Even better, stacking a wall of straw bales (any) against your coop (west side if in the southern hemisphere) will reduce the temperature dramatically. You can also break the bales into biscuits and "tile" the roof. Secure with hay-band or rope.
I've also seen people use refrigeration panels and other recycled materials with great success.
OTHER SHADE OPTIONS
Shade cloth or shade sails (old doona covers are great!) can help. I've even used thick tree branches with success over coops and runs - anything to reduce contact with direct sunlight.
WET THE GROND TO REDUCE GROUND TEMPERATURE
Chickens cool themselves by panting – so cooling the air with a fine mist or wetting down the ground and their dust bathing area (with a hose) is very useful. You're not trying to wet the birds, just the air around them.
While older birds will appreciate a cool place to stand, if you have chicks or pullets younger than 16 weeks, be cautious that wetting the ground can lead to issues with coccidiosis.
If it's going to be a scorcher and I'm out for the day, I'll thoroughly wet a section of the dust bathing area or litter outside plus under their favorite shrubs to give the flock a space to stand and cool themselves. They will dig into this dirt, where the soil is moist and cool.
Wishing everyone a safe summer.
What other tips have you got for getting your flock through hot days? I'd love to hear them. Do you want to know more about chickens? Check here for the latest tips and trends all about chickens (or chooks if you're in Australia!).
Also, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.