Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Avoiding Baked Chickens :: How We Keep the Ladies Cool in Summertime Heat

Like many of the states in the western U.S., we went through an intense heat wave a little over a week ago at our house. The temperatures were easily over 100° F for days. Ugh. We avoided a good portion of the heat wave by camping in the mountains and then the rest of it by staying inside our air-conditioned home. Unfortunately, our chickens couldn't enjoy the cool comfort inside our house; they were stuck outside in the 100°+ heat. As a result, we (along with one of my favorite girls in the neighborhood -- she took care of them while we were camping) employed a variety of methods to keep them cool in the blistering heat.

In many ways, summer is a lot harder on chickens than winter. Chickens can endure temperatures as low at -20°F.  High temperatures stress chickens' bodies out much more than cold ones. Chickens don't sweat; they release heat through their combs and wattles. This can be a problem because more blood goes to their combs and wattles, resulting in less blood to vital organs and extra stress to their systems. Chickens also pant to release heat. However, panting can put extra stress on their hearts and respiratory systems and it can lead to dangerous condition called acidosis. (I learned all of this from this awesome chicken blog)  Basically, the heat is really hard on chickens and they need extra help when it's hot.

Here are a few ways we keep the ladies in the backyard cool throughout the summer months...

1. Plenty of drinking water, often with added electrolytes.

The first rule we hear whenever there is hot weather is to drink plenty of water. A lack of water leads to all sorts of problems, whether you're a person or a chicken. Sometimes when your body is extra depleted, electrolytes are needed.

For my chickens, I mix up a gallon of water with a 1/4 tsp of an electrolyte mix I got at my local feed store. I keep the jug of water in the fridge (hence the labeling so no one drinks it, thinking it's lemonade or something. My two-year-old even knows now that it's, as he calls it, "chicken juice").  I didn't know at the time when I bought the electrolyte mix (which I bought last summer), but you can make your own electrolyte mix from scratch (recipe here from that aforementioned awesome blog). Now that I think about it, you could probably even use my recipe for homemade Pedialyte (sans Jell-O powder), too.

2. Shade 

Since we have a chicken tractor, we have the luxury of moving the tractor anywhere in the yard. Unfortunately, we only have one corner where they could go that's fairly shady all day. We do keep them in some areas where they're shaded for a portion of the day, but it's close to impossible to keep them in the shade all the time.

If shade for your chickens is limited you can employ my method: toss a towel, sheet, or light blanket over their run.

As you can see in the picture at the left, my method actually does a pretty good job keeping the bright sun out of there. The girls will usually huddle in the shaded part or in the hen house on particularly hot days.

Shade is a no-brainer, up there with plenty of water. Whether you have plenty of trees or you have to improvise with some kind of cover, give those ladies some shade!

3.  Wet Fabric + Breeze = Old-Fashioned Air Conditioning

I can't quite remember where I read this years ago, but I learned that back in the pre-A/C days, park rangers in Death Valley used to hang wet towels and sheets in front of open windows in the ranger station. When any sort of breeze or wind came through the window, it would pass through the wet sheets/towels and cool the air. Remembering this, whenever the girls seem particularly hot, I'll soak the old throw-blanket I use for their shade with water from the hose and then drape it over their run.

4.  Ice, ice, and more ice. 

If I ever notice that my hens are panting, I immediately get some ice and dump it in the tractor. This cools them off quickly. They love standing on it and, as you can see in the picture above, eating it. I've also made ice cubes with mint (mint is naturally cooling) in them and they seemed to like that, too. (Makes having mint growing rampant in my flowerbed slightly less irritating. Grrr.).

Another way to use ice to keep chickens cool is to freeze bottles of water and then set them in the run with the chickens. We had our chicken-sitter do this for us while we were away camping -- before we left, I gave her a couple washed-out juice bottles full of water to keep in the freezer (since they had the extra freezer space). As the ice in the bottle melts, it cools the area around it. The chickens also like standing by it and sitting on it to keep cool.

5. Cold and/or Frozen Treats 

In addition to ice, I'll often give my chickens a handful of frozen vegetables from my freezer. Sometimes, I'll give them a little cold yogurt (I don't do this often since chickens don't really digest dairy -- but let me tell you, they LOVE the stuff). Watermelon is a great summertime treat for chickens, too. My chickens' favorite cold treat:

Frozen shredded zucchini. I have some left in my freezer from last year's zucchini harvest. Once in a while, I'll unwrap a cup-sized block of frozen zucchini and put it in their run...

...and they go nuts (as shown by the blurred chicken heads).  They love it!

6. When all else fails, use the hose.

Sometimes, after all I've done, they'll still be panting. One sure-fire way to cool them down -- spray the run and even the chickens with the hose. They don't necessarily love it but it does the trick.  Last week it was kind of funny -- the chickens were looking totally miserable, so I got the hose out (despite our city's water restrictions about using culinary water outside) to spray the grass in the run and the ladies themselves. Two of them predictably flapped, ran, and squawked as I sprayed in there; however, my Rhode Island Red, Princess Leia (pictured on the left below), simply stood in one place and enjoyed herself. Seriously. I could tell she was digging it, like she was thinking, "Ahhhh....that's the stuff."

The water cooled them right down, plus the wet grass kept their feet nice and cool (which helps keep the rest of their body cool as well). Plus, it's good for a laugh -- the girls look pretty funny when they're wet.

"Oh, the indignity!"

How do you keep your chickens cool in the summertime?

{This post is linked up to Homestead Barn HopCreative HomeAcre Hop, Simple Lives Thursday, Little House Friday, From the Farm Blog Hopand Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.} 


Dirt Lover said...

Found you through the Homestead Barn Hop. Good post! We live in the Northern end of the Sac. valley, and I started losing chickens before it got to the 110, 112 days. I have my birds in chicken tractors, also, and was not able to keep them in enough shade for long enough. I ended up buying the electric poultry netting to make a bigger area for them in a bunch of small trees, and put their tractor inside. I got out the old pop up shade tent thing, and made East and West sides for it. Also, I plugged in a fan and ran it day and night. During the hottest part of the day, I laid the hose on the ground and just let the water run slowly for them to stomp around in. Thanks to all of that, I only lost 1 after the changes.
I've been wondering what to do with that old zucchini in the freezer. Such a better idea than putting it in the compost pile. Never thought of putting ice in the tractor! What a great idea. I'm sure we'll have more super hot days, I'll be sure to try that.
Thanks for the great ideas.

Stacy said...

Thank you - this is very helpful. We're new to chickens and soaking up the info. Visiting from Simple Lives Thursday!

CityGirlCountryBloke said...

Awesome information! We will be raising chickens within the next year and this info gave me some great ideas on how to treat then in hotter than Hades weather!

Unknown said...

This is such a fabulous post! My husband and I live on a farm, and we have twenty or so chickens that we raise. The person that owned the farm before us was really smart, and build a fan into the area where the chickens are kept. For years, it's been great for keeping the chickens at a good temperature during the summer time. Yesterday though, the fan went out, and we can't get a repair man out will this weekend. We've been really worried about the chickens, because it's so hot outside, but not anymore! They will have lots of fun with the ice cubes, I just know it!

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