As the summer weather finally seems to be warming up, we need to start thinking about keeping our chickens cool. Poultry tend to get overlooked when we worry about how high temperatures will affect our animals.
Chickens are warm-blooded animals with a body temperature between 40,6°C to 41,7°C. When they start to feel hot, they cool themselves down by panting, which is effective. But if temperatures rise, the birds pant more and so their respiration rate increases. As they inhale and exhale faster and faster, the effort increases their body temperature. When the body absorbs or produces more heat than it can get rid of, the result is a very serious condition called hyperthermia, or heat stress.
Symptoms of Heat Stress
We know our chickens are suffering from heat stress when they are:
- panting, with beak open,
- lying around with wings outstretched,
- no interest in eating,
- slow to respond to stimuli, unresponsive.
Heat stress affects the bird’s metabolic processes, including nutrient digestion, leading to poor weight gain and a low feed conversion ratio. Broilers can become dehydrated and experience a rapid loss of carbon dioxide from the blood and tissues, as this gas is exhaled during panting. Rapid carbon dioxide loss changes the blood, reducing the amount of minerals (including calcium) it can carry through the body. The increase in body temperature, coupled with the change in the composition of the blood, eventually leads to the collapse and death of the birds.
If your chickens stay in a coop, you should aim to maintain a temperature range of 15 to 33°C.
There are quite a few things that an owner can do to keep chickens comfortable during hot weather.
Sufficient supplies of water are necessary for a couple of reasons. Obviously all living creatures need water to survive. However, an egg contains a great deal of fluid, so producing an egg absorbs much of the water a chicken drinks.
You can even put ice in the water on really hot days. Poultry will not drink water if it is too warm.
Help Your Chickens to Beat the Heat
You should also provide shallow pans of water. The chickens stand in water to cool their feet and legs, which helps to lower the body temperature.
They also like to dip their heads into water. This is because the combs and wattles also act as a kind of radiator by allowing heat to escape their bodies, so dunking their heads in the water and cooling their wattles and combs immediately lowers their body temperature. This means that the larger-combed breeds are more heat-tolerant than other breeds.
Lighter-coloured chickens also tolerate heat better than the dark breeds whose feathers absorb the sunlight.
Experts disagree on misting the hens, with some swearing by it and others warning of respiratory problems. If you are also experiencing drought conditions, a handyman smallholder might investigate the misting tubing that is used outside restaurants. This has the added advantage of allowing one to add vaccination medication to the water to prevent diseases such as Newcastle’s disease.
Make sure that the chicken have sufficient shade, especially if they are kept in a coop. If there is no natural shade near the chicken house such as trees or shrubs, you might have to drape some shade cloth or a tarpaulin over a corner of the run.
Hens love to dust bathe and it helps them stay cool, so make sure your girls have a space to do that as well.
If you have lights in your coop turn them off.
Make sure that there is enough ventilation. Do what ever is necessary to allow the air to move through the chicken house. If you can set up a fan which will not be knocked down by the hens this might be a solution.
Keeping your Chickens Cool with Food
Even the food that you provide can help with cooling. Give them cold or frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen watermelon is a great treat that hydrates as well as cools the chickens. They also enjoy frozen strawberries, blueberries, cucumber slices, bananas, peas and corn kernels.
Chickens eat a lot less in the summer than they do in the winter, so be sure that they are being fed a good quality layer feed.
Vitamins and electrolytes added to their water in extreme heat can also help them cope better. While panting is beneficial because it helps decrease your chicken’s body temperature, it will in turn cause your chicken to lose more water from its body than it would in more comfortable temperatures. Your chicken will now try to compensate for this loss by drinking more water than normal, throwing off the body’s natural electrolyte balance. Try making your own electrolyte solution: mix 1 cup water, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda. You can add this to their water supply.
Fill two litre plastic bottles with water, freeze them and place them in the coop as an added way to cool the air.
Avoid handling the birds in the middle of the day when the temperature is at its highest. Also avoid anything that will cause them stress.
If your coop is quite crowded, maybe reduce the number of chickens until the weather cools down sufficiently.
To read other articles about poultry click here.
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