It’s about to get real hot here in Central Texas. The kind of hot without respite, where you can’t remember a time in your past that you ever wanted to wear a scarf or a sweater, and can’t imagine a future time when you’ll wear them again. It’s hard on a gardener, and it’s hard on your garden, but today we’re going to talk about what the heat means for your chickens and how to protect them from the hottest days of summer so they’ll still be with you when the weather cools off.
Laying hens use a lot of energy developing and laying an egg every 24-40 hours, and environmental stresses can have a noticeable impact on laying consistency as well as the overall health of the birds. Our Texas heat- hot, humid days where temperatures above 75 degrees are often retained around the clock, can be especially challenging, particularly to larger birds who were bred for life in cooler climates. It is not unusual for birds to die in summertime because of excessive heat, but with a bit of attention and preparation from their caretakers, they’ll weather the summer just fine.
Most of us who keep chickens spend a bit of time every few days out by the coop watching “chicken TV”. The social and feisty birds are really delightful to observe. In summer, you’ll notice some particular behaviors in response to the heat- nothing to worry about in and of themselves, but telltale signs that your birds are hot and you should put your summer chicken protection plans into action. You may see your girls splayed out on the ground- they’re keeping cook by putting their bodies near the cool earth. You will probably see a drop in egg counts. No matter how careful you are about external factors, once the temps are up in the 90s egg laying usually tapers off and may stop completely. Finally, chickens can’t sweat, so just like dogs they will pant to cool their bodies. Panting chickens will lose more body moisture, so they need lots of cool water available to them.
There are three main things you provide your laying hens to help them tolerate and even thrive in hot summer months:
I set up my coop and run area under a pecan tree. In the winter when the leaves are off the tree, the coop gets lots of sun and all the warmth possible, but in summer it’s deep in the shade, with just a couple of sunny spots even at high noon. This keeps the whole area up to 10 degrees cooler than the rest of my yard and also keeps metal feeders, fences, and water containers from getting dangerously hot.
If you don’t have a shade tree that’s well placed to provide cover, you could rig up a tarp, like our member Nancee did in this photo. It keeps the rain off her feeder, and adds a shady region where the girls can relax:
- Cool Water
When chickens don’t survive the heat, the cause can often be traced to a heated water source. Keep chicken water in the shade. Make a practice of emptying and refilling the water daily- this will inhibit algae, which are more apt to grow in warm weather, and will also help ensure a cool start to the day. Some sources also suggest placing extra water containers around the coop and run, to avoid fights over water which can add to stress. If your water just isn’t staying cool through the hot days, you could plan to refill mid afternoon, or use frozen water bottles to lower the temperature even further at the outset
- A well ventilated coop
New chickenkeepers always ask about keeping their birds safe in winter when the cold weather comes- is the coop protected enough from the elements? But in Texas the real concern is whether the coop has enough ventilation to provide a safe roost for birds in the summer. A roof vent or openings near the top of the coop (covered with hardware cloth or some other secure fencing to keep out critters) are ideal, since hot air rises and will flow out. One opening generally won’t do the trick- you’re looking for air flow, so try for at least two openings. Since our winters are often mild, you may even choose to replace a whole wall with fencing, to provide maximum breathability. Don’t forget to provide plenty of space for the number of birds you have so they don’t get overcrowded.
Other steps you can take
Electrolytes: Both heat itself and the dehydration that may result from it can cause electrolyte imbalances in your birds (and in you too!). Adding electrolyte powder, available at most local feed stores, to their water can help make them more resilient. Ask your vet, follow all package instructions etc.
Feed during the coolest part of the day: Eating and digestion add to body heat, so if you feed your birds daily as opposed to leaving food out for them all the time, be sure to do it in the cool early morning hours.
Make sure they have access to dirt: Chickens use dust baths to keep their skin clean and free of annoying insects, and in the summer months they may sprawl out on a shady patch of earth just to keep their hot bodies closer to the cool ground. You could help them out even more by wetting the ground to provide evaporative cooling. This is a smart move, and nothing to worry about (though it does still give me pause when I look out at the run and see a girl all splayed out- I usually go check and make sure she’s just lounging…)
Cowboy coolers: wet down a sheet other piece of fabric and hang it from a fence to lower the surrounding temperature by a few degrees. On a hot day, you’ll have to remoisten the sheet every few hours to keep the effects going…
Leave them alone: Beloved though they may be, your presence and the presence of dogs, cats and other “visitors” can add stress and cause your birds to expend extra energy. Try to get all your chicken chores done in the coolest part of the day and just leave them be the rest of the time.