Tag Archives: Backyard Chooks

Helping your hens survive the heat

The Chook Chronicles: Heat Stress in Backyard Hens

Although the weather seems not as bad as it was last summer, average temperatures are still 1 – 2°C higher than the long term average, and heat waves are tending to be hotter and longer. Tragically, quite a few friends and neighbours from Guildford and surrounding suburbs have recounted the terrible upset of losing hens to heat stress.

Summer’s not over yet, so now is a good time to review what you can do to prevent deaths due to heat stroke, and to reduce heat stress in your backyard hens.

The body temperature of chickens is higher and more variable than that of mammals; in adult hens it ranges from 40.6 – 41.7°C. Smaller breeds tend to have a higher body temperature than larger ones, probably due to metabolic rate. Activity increases body temperature, and chickens that are growing or producing a lot of eggs will also have a higher average body temperature.

A hen’s high average body temperature makes it easier to lose heat into the surrounding air, but like humans, this happens most easily when air temperature is well below body temperature.

The ideal air temperature range for chickens at which their body functions best (the ‘thermal neutral zone’) is 18 – 24°C! Hens therefore begin to experience a degree of heat stress above 24°C. Just like people though, the temperature range that chooks can stand depends on the length of exposure, and what protection they have.

Birds do not have sweat glands, so they pant to evaporate moisture for cooling, and to draw into their air sacs deep in the body to cool it. Hens will start to pant above 32°C and above 50% relative humidity. However, panting for evaporative cooling loses effectiveness above 70% humidity, greatly reducing birds’ ability to tolerate heat. The lethal upper limit for body temperature for chickens is 45 – 47°C. Chickens are at risk of death from heat prostration at air temperatures above 38°C.

Clearly, chooks are most vulnerable to heat stress during the following weather conditions:

  • Heat waves: especially when high temperatures persist for more than 3 days
  • Peak daytime temperature reaches or exceeds 35°C
  • Heat fails to dissipate overnight. Like people, hens can recover well if night-time temperatures drop back down to or near their ‘neutral zone’ (ie below about 26°C)
  • Periods of high humidity, e.g. common in late February in WA
  • Chooks that are broody or at peak of egg laying are particularly vulnerable
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Both hens below are panting – breathing through open beak instead of nostrils. Small hens such as the bantam hen on the left have a higher body temperature than larger hens, and are thus more susceptible to heat stress. The Isa Brown hen on the right has some feather loss, which likely helps to release body heat.

Ways to minimize heat stress in backyard laying hens

  • Fresh drinking water must be freely available at all times. Hens will drink twice as much at 38°C compared to 27°C. This can be as much as 400 – 500mL per average sized laying hen per day when it’s hot. The longer hens are exposed to high temperatures, the more they will drink (i.e. they drink more on the last day of a heat wave than the first day). Hens that are at their peak of lay will drink 50% more than average egg layers.
  • On very hot days, offering chilled water is beneficial – well below 28°C (e.g. add ice cubes or use an insulated container). Hens will drink more and lose heat more easily
  • Access to full shade – natural or artificial. Shade will also reduce reflected sunlight and glare, as long as trees, branches and other types of shade are situated in a way that does not interfere with air flow
  • Ventilation: Unrestricted or unobstructed air flow helps reduce the heat load through natural (location, pen construction) or artificial (fan) means
  • Evaporative cooling, e.g. wet hessian, jungle fogger, mister, sprinkler on the roof or in the pen. Solar misters, sprinklers and fans are now quite affordable and may be set to operate on a timer at peak times of the day
  • Feed at night when heat produced through digestion will be less. On very hot days, avoid feeding for 6 – 8 hours before the hottest part of the day
  • Ensure that the hen house is well insulated. Metal enclosures or a metal roof can greatly magnify and radiate heat
  • Heat stress is additive with other sources of stress such as parasites, social stress from insufficient space, broodiness, introduction of new hens, etc. Always take weather into account when managing these other potentially stressful factors
  • If you have a broody hen that is not actually sitting on eggs when a heat wave is expected, consider taking measures to discourage broodiness at this time. If hens are incubating eggs, make sure they have access to water at all times and are located in a deeply shaded area.
  • If no one is at home on very hot days, consider inviting a neighbour to check on your hens during the hottest part of the day. Checking shade and water, providing a sprinkler briefly or adding ice cubes to water may mean the difference between life and death.
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Heat stressed rooster panting (breathing fast with an open beak). Note the very bad infestation of stickfast mites all over his comb and wattles (black).

If you would like to learn a bit more about chickens and hot weather, search for ‘heat stress’ on The Poultry Site

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Chooks in the backyard OR back to Sunnyside Up

Chooks, it seems, are inspiring.

After the great success of TTG’s waste reduction initiation, the Sunnyside Up project, and by popular demand, the Kitchen Gardeners’ Society was delighted to present Chooks in the backyard.

Generously hosted by Flo, Tristan and Tim, along with Sian, Tim and Olive, lots more Kitchen Gardeners are now busily constructing poultry palaces and deciding whether to buy free range pullets or rescue battery hens.

IMG_1513Veterinarian Barb (seen here cuddling one of Flo, Tristan and Tim’s chooks) took us through basic chook care.

She covered good nutrition, chook psychology, basic physiology, some common sickness and afflictions of chooks and their basic veterinary care.

We had lots of discussion, talking through experience and concerns, and sharing chook stories.

It is important to know what your local council regulations and expectations are and how to comply.

IMG_1511Here’s Rebecca who just loves chooks.

Her super power is that she can catch any chook, no matter how determined said chook is not to be caught.

It’s very impressive.

It’s also important to manage your neighbours.  We talked about the various ways to deal with people who might think chooks are noisy or smelly or attract vermin.

Half-a-dozen free range eggs will usually get you a fair hearing – a cake baked with your lovely, free range eggs might be even more effective!

IMG_1514Here’s Olive showing us her chooks in her much smaller back garden.

Olive and her parents, Sian and Tim, were part of the Sunnyside Up project and were delighted to show us their chook house with its viewing window and gorgeous artwork on the outside.

Since that workshop lots of people have lamented not being able to attend, so the Kitchen Gardeners will be running another one next year.

Meanwhile there are two more workshops for the year, November’s is Bees in the Backyard, and December’s is Summer Veg Gardening.  If you’re not on the mailing list, please do subscribe to TTG’s newsletter so you don’t miss out.

For those who wanted the jammy fruit cake recipe, it’s here.