A Guide to Keeping Chickens Cool in the Summer
Summer can be a difficult time for keeping chickens, who come with their own year-round down coat. Prolonged high temperatures can cause stress in chickens, reducing the number of eggs laid, slowing growth, and in extreme cases, death. Many people are very concerned about how to keep their flocks in the winter, but the summer also has many risks and must not be taken lightly. So, the question is often asked: how can I keep my chickens cool in the summer? While it is not an easy task, it is by all means possible. Read on to find out some easy ways to keep your flock nice and cool in the summer heat.
First things first: How to tell when your chickens are hot
Telltale signs of a hot chicken are panting and holding their wings away from their body. Panting chickens will have their mouths open and they will be breathing quickly. They do this because much like dogs, they can’t sweat. Chickens will also hold their wings away from their body so that air can circulate to cool them down. If you see any of these signs, you should implement one of the measures listed below.
Source Classic signs of an overheated chicken-- wings A chicken panting-- an easy way to tell it is too hot
held away from body and panting
Shade is the most important way to keep your chickens cool in the summer. The difference between shade and direct sunlight can be up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it one of the most significant ways you can keep your chickens cool. This should be a factor when deciding where to place a new coop. This can be provided in many ways:
- A tree
- Shrubs or climbing plants (non-toxic)
- Shade cloth
- A roof (for the run)
- A tarp
The more permanent methods, such as trees or shrubs, are ideal for stationary coops. Additionally, Chickens will seek out shade if they are free ranging. Simply make sure that there are trees or bushes in the yard where they free range. This serves the dual purpose of providing places for the flock to hide if a predator approaches.
However, providing shade can be more difficult when dealing with mobile coops. We have a tractor, which we love, but it took a while to figure out a solution for keeping the girls cool. At one point, we were even moving it to follow the shade throughout the day. Obviously, this was unsustainable. We tried shade cloth, but it would fly away in the wind. Finally, we came to the simplest solution: a white tarp secured with bricks. This has worked very well: it is weighty enough to stay in place, it is inexpensive, and it doesn't look terrible. You can see how we've only covered the top half of the run, so the bottom half allows for adequate airflow. This has worked marvelously, and despite having incredibly large and fluffy Buff Orpingtons, they now only pant on the hottest of New England summer days.
For the Coop
If you are building a new coop and are concerned by the heat, keep two things in mind: shade and ventilation. Placing the coop next to a building or a tree will help to provide shade. A deciduous tree is a good option because the foliage will provide shade in the summer and the absence of foliage in the winter will let sunlight through for warmth.
Why a deciduous tree can be a good way to provide shade for a coop.
From The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders by Heather Cook
Also consider ventilation, an incredibly important aspect of keeping chickens cool because chickens can easily die in a stuffy, overheated coop. Large amount of passive ventilation is essential if you live in a hot climate. This can be created through windows, vents, and roof gables. While this may seem like a predator concern, if you securely cover all openings with 1/2-1/4 inch hardware cloth, they should be completely secure and less prone to dying from heat stroke. This ventilation will be good for your birds not only because it keeps them cool, but also because more ventilation allows harmful gases such as ammonia to be dissipated, which is beneficial for maintaining a healthy respiratory tract. Here is a fantastic article on ventilation.
Fans are also a very useful tool to create airflow manually. For smaller coops, box fans can be securely attached to a window. For larger, taller coops, overhead fans can be an incredibly effective and useful addition. However, when running electricity into the coop, keep in mind that practically everything in a coop has the potential to become kindling, so make sure that you buy appliances that are designed for outdoor use, and be sure to check the wiring often to ensure its safety, as rats, mice, and other small animals do have a habit of chewing through electrical cords.
In addition, it the size of the coop is important. Think of chickens as little heat and moisture- making machines. The average chicken’s body temperature is 107 degrees Fahrenheit, so overcrowding can make the coop significantly warmer. When building coops for extremely cold temperatures, it is often recommended to err on the smaller side so as to conserve heat. That is exactly what you DON'T want when you're concerned about the heat. So, make your coop as large as you can-- not only will your chickens be happier in a large coop and less prone to bullying behaviors, but a larger coop will also be cooler because it will allow the heat to dissipate. If it is necessary to build a coop on the smaller side, focusing on effective ventilation is more important. A final option is insulation. Insulating the roof of the coop will keep the heat in the coop in winter and keep the heat of the sun out in summer.
So, when building a new coop, locate it next to something that will provide shade, make sure that you have a ton of ventilation (probably more than you think you need) and make sure that you have enough space for all your chickens.
Another option is to put a fan in the coop. However, it must be a fan that is suitable for outdoor use and most of the time you also need to run an extension cord out to the coop. Also be aware that this can be a fire hazard. A fan can be a very effective way to create airflow.
When it is very hot out, it is a good idea to clean out the coop and use only a thin layer of bedding, as this will trap heat inside the coop and decomposing bedding and manure will actually create heat. So, if you use the deep litter method, summer is a good time to clean out the coop so it is cool and you have enough time to build it back up again for winter. This will also help stop worms and other organisms from reproducing, as hot, dry temperatures are perfect for them.
Keep an eye on the temperature inside the nestboxes. These can reach very high temperatures. If it gets too hot, you should block off the nest boxes, especially if you have trapnests. This is especially important if you have a persistently broody hen, as oftentimes they will sit in the sweltering nestboxes without moving to a cooler spot. This is dangerous as they can rapidly overheat and become dehydrated from not getting up. Instead, you can make makeshift nestboxes out of a box filled with bedding or a basket and place them in a location with more airflow.
For the Run
Oftentimes, the air outside is still and not cooling off the chickens enough. In this case, a portable fan would be useful. If you'd like, you can place a bowl icewater in front of the fan so the fan is moving cold air. However, I have not found this to be terribly effective, so it is more useful as a band-aid for extremely hot days. Make sure that there is plenty of shade in the run-- either from trees, shade cloth, or a roof.
Another way you can keep chickens cool is by putting a shallow dish of water for them to stand in. Also make sure they have a space to take dust baths, digging down to the cooler dirt will help them to keep cool.
A roof over the run can provide shade
Try not to interact with your chickens too much on hot days, especially during the heat of the day. It is best for chickens to stay calm and not have too much activity and running around, which will make them even more hot.
One of the best way to keep chickens cool when they’re out in the run is by using the power of evaporation. When water evaporates, it takes the heat with it. Keep in mind that methods using evaporation work best in dry climates, as humidity will lessen the effectiveness. There are many ways to use evaporation.
One of the best ways is by using a mister. Misters are used by commercial poultry farms to regulate the temperature inside buildings, and studies have shown that these reduce the temperature and improve the health of the birds. Luckily enough, this proven way to keep cool can easily be adapted for backyard flocks. You can find a misting line that attaches to a hose or spigot at many home improvement stores that are a fairly reasonable price. However, one hidden cost is that if the mister is left on for extended periods of time, you can waste a lot of water and rack up quite the water bill. So, it is a good idea to turn it on only a few times a day at the hottest times of day for shorter periods of time.
Source Some examples of how to use a mister for your flock Source
If you don’t want to get a misting system, hosing down the substrate in the run can make a big difference as well, the evaporating water will cool things down quickly. Hosing down the roof and sides of the coop can also help, especially with tin roofs.
Food and Water
In hot weather, it is absolutely essential that water be available 24/7 for your flock. This is one of the easiest ways chickens thermoregulate. You can add ice to the water to keep it cold, which will encourage chickens to drink more and also be more effective in cooling them. A nipple waterer is ideal for this. In cases of extreme heat, electrolytes can be useful to replace lost electrolytes and also encourage chickens to drink.
However, do not add Apple Cider Vinegar to the water in extreme temperatures.Apple Cider Vinegar slightly inhibits the absorption of calcium. Usually this is not a problem because chickens will get all the necessary calcium in layer feed and supplemental oyster shells. However, when it is hot, chickens will drink more and eat less, which means that they will not be getting enough calcium to maintain the quality of the egg shells.
In prolonged periods of extreme heat, some people choose to put their flock on unmedicated grower feed. This is done because since chickens eat less in high temperatures, they also get less protein than usual. However, the higher protein content in the grower feed gives them closer to the same amount of protein as they usually get even though they are eating less. Please note that this is not necessary if there are simply a few hot days in the middle of the summer. This tip should only be used for extreme temperatures for extended periods of time after you have noticed the feed consumption decrease.
Lots of people choose to feed their chickens frozen treats to help them stay cool. Here are some commonly frozen foods
- Berries (blueberries, rasberries, blackberries, etc.)
- Melon (Cantaloupe, Honeydew, etc.)
Treats like watermelon are ideal because their high water content helps to keep chickens hydrated. However, this high water content also limits the amount of nutritional value of the food. Make sure that you do not feed too many treats. Keep in mind that chickens are eating less, so you do not want the bulk of their diets to be made up of treats that offer little nutritionally. Treats should still make up no more than 10% of their diet to ensure that they are eating a healthy and balanced diet. Also, avoid is treats like cracked corn and scratch during the summertime because they create a lot of heat as they go through the digestive tract, which is a desired effect for winter, but not summer.
Make sure to place feeders and waterers in the shade, which will encourage chickens to utilize them more often. If they are placed in the sun or if chickens must walk through a sunny place to get them, oftentimes they will be much less inclined to drink and eat as much as necessary. Placing it in the shade will also help keep the water cold for a longer period of time.
If chickens are free ranging, it is a good idea to put extra waterers out. The convenience will encourage them to drink more.
Chickens will occasionally have diarrhea on hot days. However, as long as the chicken is acting normally, this should not be a problem. This is because increased water intake makes droppings more watery. Interestingly enough, chickens also lose heat through pooping, which is known as excretory heat transfer. The more you know, huh?
If chickens are severely overheated and possibly suffering from heat stroke, they will exhibit the following symptoms:
- Holding their wings away from their body
- Pale comb and wattles
- Staggering gait
- Lying down with closed eyes
- Drinking copious amounts of water
- No interest in eating
Keep in mind that these individual symptoms are not necessarily a sign of heat stroke. Chickens that are simply a little warm will pant and hold their wings out. You will be able to tell when one of your chickens is in serious trouble. Get to know your flock so you will be able to tell what is normal for them. Chickens can be overheated without it being life threatening. However, if a chicken is suffering from heat exhaustion, it is very important to get their temperature down to a safe level quickly. Here are a few ways to do that.
1.) A cool towel
Simply wrap a chicken in a towel soaked with cool water to take its temperature down.
2.) A bucket of cool water
You can keep a bucket of cool water near the coop to dip the chickens in in case of an emergency. However, this water should be cool, not cold, so as to prevent shock.
3.) Apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the bottom of the feet.
Chickens lose heat through their comb, wattles, legs, and feet. An ice pack will help the bird cool down much quicker. You can use an ice pack, a bag of ice, frozen peas, or anything else you may have. Just be sure to wrap it in a towel so that it is not too cold. Please note that this should be done in conjunction with either of the previous two recommendations, as it will likely not take the bird's temperature down enough on its own.
You can check for dehydration with this chart from Red Creek Wildlife Center.
After doing this, electrolytes can help a dehydrated chicken. Electrolytes will encourage a chicken to drink more and also replete electrolytes lost in the heat. You can buy prepackaged electrolytes, or here is a recipe from The Chicken Encyclopedia:
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Mix into 1 gallon of water.
If possible, bring the affected bird into a cooler space such as a garage, basement, or even laundry room. They can be held in a dog cage with food and water with electrolytes until they are feeling better. Then once you have corrected the situation outside with one of the above mentioned ideas, the chicken can return to the flock.
So, while keeping chickens cool and hydrated can be a challenging task, it is eminently worth it due to the reduction of health risks.
Stay cool, everyone!