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By Tiffany Towne
Nutrena Poultry Expert
Some people love a summer heatwave, or for that matter, sweating it out in a sauna. Not chickens. For our feathered friends, steamy summer days — which are increasing, due to climate change — can mean trouble. But the right care can help your girls keep their cool and stay productive throughout the season.
Why the Fuss?
Chickens cannot sweat, making them much more susceptible to overheating. Chickens normally lose heat as warm blood flows through the comb, wattles, and limbs, cools, and is returned to the body’s interior. Problems occur in extreme heat when the chicken’s temperature (on average 102 degrees F to 103 degrees F) cannot be reduced by this method. Without relief, heatstroke, low egg productivity, or death can happen.
Just like humans, chickens can tell us a lot through body language. Some symptoms of an uncomfortable or overheated chicken include:
• Wings spread to its sides to release extra heat;
• Loss of appetite;
• Lethargic/less active; and
• Diarrhea from increased water intake.
The biggest concern about eating less feed is ingesting fewer nutrients than are required for healthy, productive birds. At a minimum, this causes weight loss, a drop in egg production, or eggs with poor shell quality. Worst case, it leads to an unhealthy bird that’s more susceptible to disease.
Hot Weather Care Tips
There are ample ways to protect your birds and keep your flock happy. Here are some basic tips:
A hydrated bird is able to regulate its temperature more efficiently — and keep its egg production up. An egg is almost 75% water — so keeping this nutrient available is essential for egg production. A fresh supply of cool, clean water is a necessity year-round, but especially in the heat of summer. Have more than one source of water, so chickens don’t have to move far or fight to get it.
Coops and runs should be partially shaded if possible, even if it’s just a simple tarp or piece of cardboard. But keep it big enough so that birds aren’t huddling in a small space. Chickens without shade tend to stay inside, away from cooling breezes. If you have darker birds, they’ll need more shade to stay cool and reduce fading, since they don’t reflect sunlight like light birds. Conversely, white birds may take on a “brassy” appearance from having their feathers exposed to too much sun. Also, keep in mind that in hot, dry climates, strong sun, combined with high heat and low humidity, dries out feathers. They become brittle and susceptible to breakage.
Proper ventilation is a must. It provides comfort by removing moisture, ammonia, and other gasses, and provides an exchange of air. Mesh-covered windows let air in and keep predators out. A wire mesh screen door helps keep the coop cooler at night. Increase circulation with a fan. Also, installing a reliable thermometer to monitor heat conditions is a great idea.
Who doesn’t like a breeze on a hot day? If possible, the windows on your coop should be south facing. This will help with warmth in the winter and dryness (and less rot) during the rest of the year. Also, paint your coop a lighter color, so it reflects, rather than retains heat.
Chickens love taking dust baths and working the cool dirt particles into their feathers. Most chickens will simply roll around in a dusty spot in a garden bed or raw dirt patch. Soil, mulch, and sand will also work. If your chickens are confined, you can make a great dust bath for them by filling a shallow container (like a kitty litter box) with your chosen material. Your chickens will be happier and cleaner if you provide a good dust bathing area for them.
Provide chilled or frozen summer treats. Create your own giant Popsicle by floating fruit in a bowl of water and freezing. Chickens also love fresh fruits and veggies from the garden (who doesn’t?). As with all treats, don’t overdo it. Feed no more than 10% of the total diet in treats, and make sure a complete commercial ration is the main source of food. This way, your birds will still get the much-needed vitamins, minerals, energy, and protein that the layer ration provides, but with the added bonus of a cool summertime treat! Avoid high starch grains, such as corn, which heat up a chicken’s body temperature during digestion.
Keep stress levels down and avoid getting your birds all worked up. Give them plenty of room to stay calm, cool, and quiet. No one wants to “play chase” or be held on a scorching day.
With the right cool-down care, your flock — and you — can have an enjoyable summer. Have fun!
Find a Nutrena dealer near you at www.NutrenaPoultryFeed.com, subscribe to the Nutrena poultry blog at ScoopFromTheCoop.com, and sign up for Flock Minder at FlockMinder.com to receive timely tips delivered directly to your inbox.
Originally published in the June/July 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry.