It’s no secret that raising backyard chickens is growing in popularity as more and more people yearn to connect with their food sources and their environment. I’m not immune to the siren song that fresh eggs and delicious home-raised meat provides, but as a 25-year desert dweller, I’ve come to realize that urban farming in an arid, desert climate comes with its own set of unique challenges and considerations, especially when it comes to water conservation. With the southwestern United States enduring severe drought, dealing with water restrictions has become part of everyday life for residents from California to Texas. The modern urban farmer is not exempt from the need to conserve our most precious resource while providing comfortable and healthy accommodations for our feathered friends.
I live in Las Vegas, one of the sunniest cities in the United States, tied only with Phoenix. Our summers, which typically last from May through October, are brutally hot and dry with temperatures ranging upwards of 100 degrees F. It’s a challenge for humans to stay cool in the summer, not to mention the chickens! I have come up with eight strategies that will help you raise happy, healthy birds and allow you to save precious water at the same time by working with—not against—the environment we have!
1. The Right Bird For The Climate
Choose a breed of chicken that is naturally adapted to hotter climates. Consider the color of the bird—a dark-colored bird will absorb more heat and may overheat more quickly during the hot summer months. Small bodied, light-colored birds with large combs and wattles will be better suited for hot temperatures. The chicken’s comb and wattle acts as a radiator, dispersing heat and allowing it to more easily regulate its temperature. Some heat-hardy breeds include the Easter Egger, White Leghorn and small bantam breeds like the Buff Silkie.
Naked Neck chickens are especially well suited for a warm climate due to their exposed necks and sparse feathers.
2. Consider The Sun
We’re not lacking in sunshine and heat in the desert, and because chickens are more likely to suffer from the effects of heat and sun rather than cold, it’s important to consider protection from the sun. Before you build your chicken habitat, spend some time evaluating your property and paying close attention to where the sun hits during all times of the day. If you’re lucky enough to have a property with mature trees, their shade will be a great help; however, mature shade trees are not typical in the landscape of the desert Southwest, so you may need to improvise and work with the environment that you have.
Ideally, position your coop on the eastern side of your property, as the morning sun will be cooler for the birds. If possible, avoid placing the coop on the western side of your property, as the hot, setting sun will roast them. Be especially mindful that the nesting boxes are not facing the hottest side of the yard. Placing the coop in the shadow of your home will also provide much needed sun protection.
3. Paint Your Coop
If you notice, most homes in the desert Southwest have a similar color—shades of beige, peach and pink. There is a good reason for that: Lighter colors reflect the sun and help keep our homes cooler during the summer. Take a cue from the design of desert architecture and consider painting your coop a light color, as well.
4. Use Physical Shade Structures
Add zones of shelter and sun protection within the run to give your birds a place to rest when they get hot. A reclaimed pallet or sheet of plywood leaned against a wall provides a cool, shady spot for the birds to linger under when they need a break from the sun.
5. Add Cooling Elements
Once your coop is constructed in the best possible spot and you’ve given them some physical shade structure, it’s time to think about adding some cooling elements. Misting systems utilize approximately a half gallon of water per emitter per hour. While misters are great for humans, they aren’t always the best for your chickens, whose respiratory systems sometimes can’t handle that much humidity. Fortunately, it’s not often that we encounter issues with too much humidity in the desert. Place the misters in a location where the chickens can avoid being directly sprayed by the mist. In addition, use a timer and only utilize the misters intermittently during the hottest part of the day. Check your local jurisdictions for additional restrictions on using misters during the summer.
6. Ventilate The Coop
The chicken coop needs plenty of ventilation, but also be careful of drafts. Pay careful attention to the weather patterns and microclimates in your yard. If you notice that the wind blows in a certain direction—in Las Vegas, the wind often blows from the northwest—place the coop in such a way that the wind does not blow into the coop. Choose or build a coop with plenty of windows and vents placed near the top of the coop to allow rising hot air to escape.
7. Use A Water Fountain
8. Provide Extra Hydration
Urban farming in the desert is a challenge, but using these strategies to work with the environment and not in opposition to it will ensure that your birds have the best chance of thriving in our arid climate and will help save our precious resources for future generations.