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Chilling For Chickens — Summer 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Manage heat stress in your flock

By Becky Mills

When Sue Weaver, who raises chickens and authored the book, Chickens: Tending A Small Scale Flock for Pleasure and Profit, moved from Minnesota to Arkansas, she got a crash course in chickens and heat stress.

Always be alert for signs of heat stress, she says.

"Chickens get lethargic and pant with their beaks open," says Weaver, of Mammoth Springs, Ark. "They flatten themselves out with their wings spread away from their bodies. The hens stop laying and the young chicks stop growing."

Badly-stressed hens may take a couple of months to start laying again, and then, their eggshells will most likely be thin.

A bird's size tends to indicate how much heat will affect it.

"We have cochins and they act like they are going to die when it is hot," she says. "Our little bantams run around like nothing is wrong."

Whatever the breed or size, they tend to acclimate to the heat after five to seven days, unless it is terribly hot, she says.

To minimize heat stress, first think cool, clean water, Weaver says. Her hens free range during the day so she sets pans of water under the shade trees. She also mixes up an electrolyte solution, freezes it in ice trays, then goes around two or three times a day and puts a couple of the frozen cubes in water pans.

"I'll do anything to get them to drink more water. The electrolytes really help a lot," she says.

Providing protection from the sun is a necessity. If chickens aren't allowed to roam the yard and find shelter under trees, create some kind of shade in their pen to allow them to escape the blazing sun.

Hot summer nights get even hotter in a closed-up hen house, so Weaver runs a fan to keep the air moving. Create a simple evaporative cooling system by letting a hose slowly drip in front of a fan; the blowing droplets will cool the air.

Weaver also suggests:

  • Don't crowd your flock. Chickens need room to spread out to get away from the body heat of the other birds.
  • Feed early in the morning while it is relatively cool so they'll eat more. "When they are heat stressed they don't eat a lot," she notes.
  • Keep them calm. "Don't let the dogs chase them around and get them hotter," she says.

Despite Weaver's best efforts, one of her chickens occasionally will get in trouble with heat stress. She has a set first aid routine.

She keeps an old dog crate in a quiet, out-of-the-way place in the house. She puts a damp towel in the bottom, sets the chicken on it, and puts a fan on the outside where it blows to the inside of the crate. "They recover fast," she says.

Still, the best cure for heat stress is prevention. "Nip it in the bud," she says, "before they get run down."

Becky Mills, a Georgia writer, specializes in agricultural stories.