Keeping your chickens cool in our hot, central Texas summers can be a challenge. This year, long-term forecasts predict a hotter- and dryer-than-normal summer, despite our wetter- and cooler-than-normal spring.
Hot weather can stress your chickens and reduce egg production. A friend of mine recently moved his chickens from low-roofed shelters in a sunny part of the yard to higher-roofed, better ventilated housing in a well-shaded area. Within a day’s time, the number of eggs he was getting from his hens about doubled and continued to stay elevated because his hens were able to stay cooler.
How to Help Your Chickens Stay Cool
Several key considerations to keep your chickens cool are: water, shade and ventilation. Another thing that’s often overlooked is the need to start with adapted breeds. We’ll discuss each of these in more detail and give some other tips.
Just as a glass of ice water can help you cool down on a hot day, a source of clean, cool drinking water can help your chickens stay cool. When it’s hot, chickens don’t like to venture out of the shade that they’re in, so put waterers in the same shade where the chickens tend to hang out.
Nipple waterers are getting a lot of interest these days. While they can be useful, I wouldn’t recommend them as your chickens’ sole source of water. Why? Because when your chickens need water the most, they’re panting. When they’re panting, it’s very hard from them to get fully hydrated from a nipple waterer. They really need something they can dip their beaks into. If you’re going to use nipple waterers, I’d recommend using a more traditional water fount for their main source of water (the 3, 5 and 7 gallon plastic founts with large, screw-on lids commonly found in feed stores are durable and work well) and use the nipple waterer as a backup.
A Note on Water Palatability
Keep the waterers clean. As the chickens’ drinking water gets dirty, (I would imagine that) it gets less and less palatable. If it’s less palatable, the chickens won’t drink as much. Though their taste buds don’t appear to be as keen as ours, dirty or otherwise unpalatable water can cause them to drink less than they need, so clean out the waterers thoroughly when you refill them. A long-handled brush works well for this.
Water from some sources can be unpalatable because of dissolved minerals. Where I grew up, there was a lot of sulfur in the ground. In fact, a nearby town’s main industry was mining of sulfur. All of our water came from a 90 foot deep well, and it had a strong sulfur smell even after it was run through the water softener. Leaving it in an open container for awhile would reduce the smell and make it more palatable. Other minerals could have similar palatability issues and may require a different approach, such as using a carbon filter.
Palatability is a good reason to also consider whether or not you should add mineral supplements to the water. We’ve done some experiments and found that our chickens drink less water when it contains a vitamin supplement than without. If you’re thinking of adding supplements to your chickens’ water, you may want to conduct a side-by-side test to see if it affects how much they drink.
On a hot day, the water temperature will quickly rise until it’s commensurate with the air temperature. Since warm water won’t cool your chickens as well as cooler water and since they won’t drink as much warm water as cool, on extremely hot days, you may need to refill their waterers with cool water several times a day. Adding some ice will also help. One idea I’ve run across but haven’t tried yet is to freeze water inside of used water bottles so that it makes block ice. Those can be stuck inside of a large chicken waterer to keep the water cool for a long time.
Shade from a tree is just about the coolest shade that there is, for multiple reasons. For one, trees draw up water from deep in the ground and let out moisture through their leaves. This process of evapotranspiration cools the tree and the air around and beneath it.
Tree shade is multi-level. The leaves nearest the sun catch the sunlight first, reflecting some of it, absorbing some of it, and shading the leaves beneath them. Lower leaves, then, have less sunlight falling on them and filter it even more. By the time you reach the lowest leaves, lots of sunlight has been filtered out, and most of the heat absorption has occurred higher in the tree — at least that’s my opinion.
Putting your chickens under the shade of a tree will help them stay cool. If a shade tree isn’t available, construct some type of shade. Position the roof so that it’s as high as reasonably possible, away from the chickens. Choose a roofing material that is reflective. White or silver is a good choice. Black is a poor choice because it absorbs heat so well. The roof will absorb some heat, so make sure the area beneath it is well ventilated so a breeze can carry away the heat.
As mentioned earlier, chickens put off a lot of heat and moisture, since they have a high body temperature and cool themselves by evaporative cooling, through panting. Hot, moist air in the coop makes it harder for them to stay cool. During the summer, you want a coop that’s very well ventilated. I prefer one that has mesh on both front and back. If you position it so that prevailing winds pass through, that will help the air stay drier and cooler.
People say things like, “you want a draft-free environment for chickens”. Limiting the amount of draft is a good idea in cold and wet weather, but during hot summer weather, you want a steady breeze blowing through the coop.
In Texas, make coops as adaptable as you can, with large mesh areas or windows that you can cover or close partially on the coldest, windiest winter days and that you can fully open in the summer.
Overcrowding stresses your chickens and makes it harder for them to stay cool. For adult, dual-purpose breeds, 4 square feet per bird is pretty much a minimum, and 6-8 square feet per bird is better. Even more space is needed if they do not have regular access to fresh ground.
Regionally Adapted Breeds
One of the most important things you can do to help your chickens survive the heat is start with adapted breeds. There are many different breeds of chickens, and they each have a purpose. Many of the breeds that we know of today were each developed in and for specific geographic regions. That’s one reason why so many of them bear names of places, such as Rhode Island Red or New Hampshire or Delaware or Welsummer. There’s a big difference between the climates that different breeds of chickens were originally developed for. Some breeds and strains were developed for very cold climates and some were developed for much warmer climates.
Despite their original purpose, chickens can be adapted to some degree by selective breeding within a region other than where they originated. For example, if we raise New Hampshire Reds in the south, and choose as breeders only the most vigorous, healthy and productive birds from our flocks, then generation after generation, we can expect the breed’s performance in this region and climate to improve. In other words, we’re developing a strain of that breed that’s better suited for hot weather.
If you live in the south, choose a breed that’s well adapted for the heat. Mediterranean breeds, such as the White Leghorn, handle the heat well, but for most homesteads, I’d recommend a larger dual-purpose breed that can be raised for both meat and eggs.
It should have a large single comb and large wattles. The bright reddish color of a healthy comb is an indicator of the large number of blood vessels and high amount of blood flow in the comb. Just like a car’s radiator helps cool the engine by efficiently dissipating heat contained in the coolant that circulates through both it and the engine, a chickens’ comb helps it to stay cool. The wattles do too. For hot climates, you want a large, single comb with large points. This gives a lot of surface area that’s exposed to the air, meaning a large area that can let off heat.
All of the breeds we carry have large single combs. For example, look at the comb of this Black Australorp rooster.
Breeds adapted for colder climates, such as Wynadottes, have smaller, more compact combs. These enable the bird to keep in its body heat better and help to prevent frostbite. If you live in the northern states, that’s important, but in Texas, you want as much surface area as you can get.
Because they are black-feathered, we occasionally get the question about our Black Australorps, “how well do they handle the heat?” We’ve found that they do very well. Now, we are raising them in well-ventilated, shaded coops, so most of the time, they’re not in direct sunlight. This makes their black feathering less of an issue. But from what we’ve seen, they fare just as well as our lighter color breeds in hot weather. With our Australorps as well as all of our other breeds, we select for vigor and overall health. This results in strains that are well-suited to our hot, central Texas summers.
There are several ways you can make use of evaporative cooling to help your chickens stay cooler.
One approach is to drape a damp fabric over the run or the roof of the coop. The cloth will hold moisture, letting it evaporate slowly. As it evaporates, it will carry off heat, cooling the coop. Spray it down every so often with water so it can continue to work.
Another approach is misting. Water mist will lower the air temperature. But it has several downsides. It raises humidity, and it can dampen the floor and any bedding in the coop. If the floor of the coop stays wet all the time, bacteria and other things will start to multiply, and you may have trouble with diseases that you wouldn’t ordinarily have. If you’re going to use a mister, a better approach would be to position it on the roof of the coop so it will cool the roof but drains off rather than getting the coop floor wet.
If you decide to mist the area inside the coop, make sure you have lots of ventilation, and occasionally let the coop dry out. In a chicken tractor with a dirt floor, watering the floor will cause it to be cooler as the water evaporates, giving your hens a nice place to lay down and cool off during the day.
In addition to all the basics described above, there are a number of simple things you can do to help your birds stay cool. For one, position your coops so that you make use of the prevailing winds. If your summertime winds are mostly from the south, or mostly from the southeast, orient your coops so that wind will easily pass through.
If your coop is open on one side and closed on other sides, position it so that it shades the birds. Particularly, focus on giving them noon and afternoon shade.
For chicken tractors or coops with a covered run area, you can try something like what I’ve done, which is put Bermuda grass or other grass or weeds that you’ve pulled from your garden onto the roof to make sort of a thatched roof. You can just lay it over the mesh. This very low-tech approach blocks a lot of sunlight and provides good insulation against heat from the sun.
Look for ways to give your chickens something cool to eat. Frozen or refrigerated watermelons or cantaloupes, frozen fruit or frozen peas can provide something tasty that will also help them cool off.
Avoid giving your birds scratch grain during the heat. Scratch grain is high in carbohydrates, which are a great energy source to help them stay warm in winter, but it’s exactly what you don’t want during summer.
In conclusion, focus on the essentials: breeds and strains adapted to handle the heat; an ample supply of cool, clean water; good ventilation; and plenty of shade. Then add low-tech evaporative cooling if necessary and try a few of the other tips as needed. Your flock will benefit by being less stressed and healthier, and they may lay better as a result.
Did you know?
Chickens produce about 8 BTUs per hour per pound of chicken. Suppose your chickens average 7 pounds each. Each chicken is then producing an average of 60 BTU per hen per hour, or the equivalent of an 17 watt incandescent bulb. A flock of 17 birds would put off as much heat as a 300 watt heat lamp.