Last week, we found what makes any homesteader’s heart stop beating . . .
. . . an animal that had passed away. When my husband went out at night to shut the chickens in the coop, one of “the reds,” what we called our then three Rhode Island Reds, was laying in a little fluffy heap by the side of the coop. He came in and asked me if I had noticed anything wrong with her during the day, and then we both went out together to confirm our growing suspicion. She had indeed died, and thankfully, it looked like a relatively peaceful passing. No pile of feathers from an animal attack, no blood . . . nothing at all that would make us suspect illness.
As he went out to the back 40 to bury her, I went inside and began to do some research. All five of our chickens had looked fine just a few hours ago. I didn’t suspect old age, as we’ve only had our flock for several years. Then I began to think about the heat.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been experiencing record highs. The historic record for today in our city is 103 degrees; today, it’s a blistering 105. ONE O FIVE. We are hotter than Phoenix today. That is craziness. It felt like a blanket of heat over my body when I went to check on the chickens this afternoon.
The only possible reason we could think of for our red’s passing was the heat. And as I researched more that night, I began to find out we had been underestimating a chicken’s capacity to withstand hot temperatures.
Here on the homestead, our family comes first. We have two young boys and a little one on the way to care for . . . caring for each other and time together is our priority. Yet our animals are an intrinsic part of our life, too. While only my husband is eating eggs at the moment, they are essentially free breakfast food for him, and we are thankful to have a clean source, free of pesticides, GMOs, and other nasty ingredients. Our chickens are also our gardeners extraordinaire. They till the soil and keep us blessedly tick free in the warmer months. While our world didn’t end with one chicken’s passing, we were also sobered by life lost, not only because all life is precious to our God, but because He also commands us to steward our animals’ lives well.
Proverbs 27:23: Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds.
Though we move forward with solemnness, we also move forward with gratitude, as we are now more equipped to care for our chickens in the heat. We’d love to share with you what we’ve learned in hopes it can help you with these last dog days of summer!
Phoenix Chickens Fare Fine
It could be a headline in the paper today for the place where my husband grew up. Poultry farmers sure have their work cut out for them in the blazing Arizonian heat. It almost feels like a cruel joke – you’re trying to take care of yourself in the heat, but it’s hard to do it when you’re outside trying to care for your animals.
When our family first started to consider raising chickens, we thought to call down to some farmers in Phoenix to get advice about raising chickens in Arizona. At the time, we were praying about moving out of our first house and didn’t know where God wanted us to move next. One day I talked to a female farmer, and she said raising chickens in the summer was harder than the winter months. I remember thinking, “What?” I do totally fine when I’m out in the heat for an hour or so . . . shouldn’t chickens be fine, too?”
Now I understand better!
And after Miss Red’s passing, I have an even better grasp of the conditions even a healthy, young chicken can withstand. My benchmark for when to check on the chickens was around 100 degrees Farhrenheit, but chickens will start to suffer from the heat around 80 degrees! Even if you’re not seeing any external picture of heat stroke, their bodies are beginning to feel it. And don’t assume that because they fared well last Summer they will do fine this season, too. Each year is different. Now we know to start employing cooling measures around 80 degrees; we also know that around 90 degrees, egg production can slow down and even stop around 100 degrees.
After talking with a friend from church, too, we realized that it was a Rhodie that passed away, not one of our Buff Orpingtons. If you think about it, light clothing reflects the heat, while dark clothing soaks it up; the same goes for chickens, too! Lighter-colored chickens like Buffs, Leghorns, etc. seem to do better in the heat than darker-colored breeds. If you’re considering raising chickens and live in a region with scorching summers, it might behoove you to consider this fact!
Signs a Chicken Isn’t Coping Well in the Heat
Think about how you feel in the Summer months . . . a lot of times you might just want a big salad or huge fruit smoothie for dinner. A chicken’s appetite will drop in the heat as well. My husband had mentioned to me several times in the past month that the chickens hadn’t been dropping on their feed like ravenous vultures as much when he fed them in the morning . . . and usually it’s a free for all! I just chalked it up to their rations being temporarily out of flax and sesame seeds (we buy and mix our own feed from Azure, and they were out of these ingredients the last time we ordered). Again, now I know better! Eating less food is one sign of heat fatigue. Here are some other signs:
- Keeping their beaks open and panting. Chickens can’t sweat, so they get rid of body heat through their mouths. If you look closely in their beaks, you can see their little tongues moving up and down.
- Strutting around or lying on the ground with their wings held away from their body. This is another measure they do to release trapped heat.
- Pale comb and wattle.
- And, later on, lethargy.
Here are two pics I snapped today in 105 degree weather to illustrate the top two points:
Now that you know the signs of heat fatigue, what measures can be done to combat it?
Knowing a chicken’s appetite wanes in the hot weather, anything you can do to get calories into your flock is beneficial. On two days this week, I took a few sardines and mixed them into their regular feed . . . boy, they gobbled that down! And they got a few pieces of millet, peas, and sunflower seeds mixed in in the process. In these hot summer months, when the grass is brown and parched, chickens aren’t getting much greenery or bugs. The bugs come up to the surface when it’s moist, but there are relatively few insects or worms here now, save for a quick-to-spring-away grasshopper. Chickens are omnivores, and without those fresh plant and bug sources, their dietary omegas and protein can be lacking. Supplementary carcasses from a fishmonger, fish meal, sea kelp, crickets, or mealworms can all help fill that need. To that end, if you pasture your flock, providing them with a new area to scratch in will be hugely beneficial. Even if the grass is dry, the chickens can still get a few bugs and till up some roots they can eat. My husband noticed recently that when he moved our small free-ranging area that the chickens actually ate more of their regular rations that day; perhaps, he reasoned, it was because they were burning more calories as they scratched the ground.
Other strategies include:
- Fruit! Apples, bananas, berries, pineapple, and watermelon are all great. Just be sure to take away the apple seeds – they are poisonous to poultry! Many sites say to freeze the fruit to make it colder, but we’ve found the chickens lose interest and forget to come back if they can’t peck into the fruit and devour it right away.
- Vegetables. Water-laden ones like cucumber or celery are great.
- Coconut water. Pour a little onto their feed or in a dish separate from their water. A great source of electrolytes.
Avoid giving corn or scratch, as this takes a long time for them to break down and causes their body temperature to rise.
1. Give them shade. Overturn a culvert, prop a piece of plywood against the coop, or let the chickens free range in a spot with plenty of bushes or trees.
2. Put ice in their water. This honestly hasn’t helped us much. Their sweet bird brains are pretty small, and they don’t understand that the clear cube in their water makes it colder.
3. Offer extra water sources. My husband noticed that what got the chickens’ attention most at this time was just dumping a bucket of water on the ground; they go and peck peck peck the water up as fast as they can. We also put an extra nipple dispenser filled with water in their run area.
4. Use sprinklers or misters. Dampening the ground with a sprinkler helps some cool air to circulate. Lots of farmers also employ misters; their steady light outpouring of steam helps with evaporative cooling. Running an electrical cord out to the coop and hooking up a fan can also help.
5. Fill a pool up with water and put some bricks in it. Last summer this seemed to help; the chickens would stand on the bricks that had soaked up the water from the shallow basin and get their feet cool. This year, not so much. I think you just have to play around with it each year!
6. Just dump water on them! I know it sounds a bit harsh, but when we’ve held them close to us with one hand, then *gently* poured a bucket of water over their backs, they have honestly acted relieved rather than startled or hurt! Chickens’ feathers are naturally water-repellant, so you can lightly push back some of the feathers and get some water under them, too.
7. Keeping checking. As much as your own body can handle, do checks every few hours on the flock. A chicken’s condition, even a healthy one, can deteriorate rapidly in very high temperatures.
May these measures help keep Henrietta happy this Summer! Blessings to you in your homesteading adventures!