A backyard laying flock is one of the easiest types of livestock to care for, requiring little more than predator-proof housing, food, water and maybe an earthworm or two. In return, the hens provide the family with farm fresh eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
That is, until the high heat of summer kicks in and heat-stressed chickens take a sabbatical and drop egg production to next to nil.
Once temps reach the triple digits, you’ll be lucky if you get a single egg from a flock of a dozen hens. However, with a bit of extra attention, you can ease the stress of summertime heat and help the girls continue laying those golden eggs even during the dog days of summer.
Enemy No. 1: Heat Stress
Chickens are fairly hardy creatures, often enduring crowded conditions, suboptimal nutrition and less-than-ideal housing. However, when it comes to battling heat, chickens aren’t overly adept at maintaining their cool. That’s because chickens don’t sweat.
Instead, heat is dissipated via their comb, wattles, shanks and the unfeathered areas beneath the wings. And while it is true that chickens, like dogs, are capable of panting to aide in cooling, once panting is evident, the hen is already in a state of heat stress.
Because chickens don’t sweat, it’s important to recognize the contributing factors to heat stress so you know when to put your heat management practices into action. Once temperatures reach a balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit, many hens begin to consume less food. This results in a reduced level of nutrition.
As protein and calcium stores become depleted, egg production and quality begin slowly dropping.
By the time summer temps reach 85 degrees, eggs become fewer, smaller and have softer shells. By 95 degrees, overall production drops significantly or stops altogether, with heat exhaustion becoming a serious threat to any unprotected birds.
In regions with high humidity, chickens are in even greater danger of heat stress. Heat indices often reach these thresholds much sooner and last for much longer than in less humid regions.
Provide Cool Water
A constant supply of cool water is perhaps one of the best strategies for keeping hens comfortable enough to continue eating their rations and laying eggs. However, water that is cool to the touch during the early morning hours often becomes unappealing, hot liquid before noon in many areas.
Hot water is much less appealing to the flock, resulting in less water consumption and dehydration. Once dehydrated, the hen struggles even harder to stay cool and simply cannot lay eggs.
Left untreated, dehydration leads to heat exhaustion and then death.
There are many ways to ensure a cool water source even if you’re away from home for most of the day. A water container with an automatic waterer attached is the easiest option for providing a continuous supply of fresh, cool water.
Each time a hen takes a drink, fresh water will refill the container, encouraging hens to continue drinking.
Another easy option is to freeze several water buckets overnight in a large chest freezer. Set each one out in the morning in the shade to allow for slower melting. Refill containers with fresh water as soon as you return home in the afternoon.
Alternatively, freeze water in half or 1-gallon ice-cream buckets each night and place in water containers each morning or, even better, every couple of hours as the temperature rises whenever possible. Refill and refreeze each evening.
For a special treat, freeze large sections of fruit such as watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and even berries and cucumbers for each day. These may be placed in the water buckets like ice, which also helps to keep the hens drinking.
In addition to cool water, electrolytes may be added to the water to encourage drinking and to replace lost electrolytes. There are many home recipes as well as ready-made electrolyte mixes available for purchase.
When using electrolytes, however, be sure to follow directions closely. Some recommend only offering the electrolytes for a limited time to prevent other health issues.
It’s also a good idea to include a source of plain water nearby in the event a hen decides she doesn’t like the taste the electrolytes add to the water.
Hot chickens don’t eat well, which also decreases egg production. To help hens continue laying, increase their ration’s protein level. Switch from 16 percent layer feed to one with 17 to 18 percent protein, such as those designed for molting.
You can also increase protein by mixing small amounts of milk or sunflower seeds into their mash. This further stimulates appetites.
However, avoid scratch grains during hot weather, particularly corn-based sources. The carbohydrates raise body temperatures during digestion, further decreasing food consumption.
Open the Coop
Second only to adequate water and food sources is ventilation—not only in the coop but in the chicken yard as well. If your girls are lucky and have windows in their chicken coop, keep them open once temperatures reach 75 degrees.
Screened doors instead of solid doors are also quite useful even if they can only be left open during the daytime hours when predators are less likely to venture to the coop for an easy meal.
Fans also contribute to airflow and are highly recommended. But care should be taken as they can be a fire hazard.
Regardless of how much ventilation you provide inside the coop, hens laying in indoor nesting boxes will still get hotter than is optimal.
Broody hens have an even higher risk of heat exhaustion and stroke than a nonbroody hen. They’ll often only leave their nest once or twice in an entire day to eat, drink and relieve themselves.
So moving nesting boxes outside into a safe area of the run is best for laying and broody hens whenever possible.
To encourage egg laying in outdoor nesting boxes rather than inside the hot coop, you may need to close off the original nesting area to force the hens to look for other areas to lay their eggs.
Empty milk crates and square laundry baskets placed outdoors and stuffed with a bit of straw make suitable outside nesting boxes. Many hens will happily choose these cooler options over their normal indoor boxes.
Lots of Shade
Perhaps the most commonly overlooked needs during hot weather are adequate shade and breezes.
To provide a constant source of shade around the yard, place several tarps along the run walls wherever possible. But you also need to keep air flowing throughout the chicken yard. Be sure to leave an open space of at least 3 feet around the perimeter between the tarp and the ground.
Scrap lumber may also be used to build simple shelters throughout the yard as well. One of my favorite methods of creating shade is to bend cattle panels into an arch and then cover with tarps.
These shady tunnels are a favorite of my hens. They allow good airflow and protection from the occasional summer rainstorm. As an added bonus, I can move these temporary shelters as needed with relative ease and minimal equipment.
The best source of shade, however, is free-ranging whenever possible, particularly in wooded areas. The cool, moist earth is a treasure trove of protein-rich earthworms. It also cools the hens’ feet and provides much needed relief during extreme temperatures.
In areas where predators are a problem, portable fencing is an excellent option whether free-ranging in the woods or in the backyard. Even cattle panels lined with poultry netting may be assembled into temporary enclosures to provide chickens respite from the heat.
Plus, the additional roaming space keeps the chickens from crowding together under a single shade source. This further allows them to keep themselves cooler and more comfortable throughout the hottest part of the day.
Do, however, ensure your hens have easy access to their water source. They are often quite hesitant to travel back to the chicken yard for a drink.
Place a few sources of cool water throughout their favorite ranging spaces to keep them hydrated. Replenish with fresh water as needed.
Dust Baths & Misters
As you likely already know, chickens are known for their love of dust baths. During the heat of summer, access to dust baths is a significant component in heat management. The dust has a cooling effect over their bodies.
You can help chickens create their own dust bath by allowing access to grass-free dirt. You can also dig a shallow hole to get them started.
Another great option is to fill a kiddie swimming pool with soft, loose dirt several inches deep. It won’t take the girls long to find this flock-sized dust bath and jump in.
Another use for a kiddie pool is as a source of wading water. Many hens will happily walk around in a few inches of cool water whenever they get hot. They can take a drink, too.
Adding a mister to the area they roam in is another good way to provide a cooling station. Misters are capable of reducing the surrounding air temp by up to 20 degrees in some areas.
And because hens typically don’t like dripping water from a sprinkler, misters may be used in their place to cool the most commonly used areas of the chicken yard on exceptionally hot days without stressing the chickens further.
Keeping your flock healthy enough to continue laying eggs during the dog days of summer can at times be challenging. However, the extra work required usually lasts only a few months. And it is made easier with careful planning such as breed selection, water placement, and shady locations.
So fill your freezer with ice and frozen fruit, start building those extra waterers and find some shade. Then you and your flock will be prepared when the heat comes.
Sidebar: Signs of Heat Stress
Heat stress begins and chickens need help keeping cool when the ambient temperature climbs above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. And it’s readily apparent above 85 degrees, according to North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. For most areas of the U.S., these are pretty normal summer temperatures.
Mild signs of heat stress in chickens manifest as:
- reduced egg laying
- lower hatching rates
- reduced weight gain
- smaller and weaker eggs
- pale combs and wattles
Just as people become more irritable when hot and uncomfortable, chickens suffering from heat stress are also not themselves. They’ll be lethargic, eat less and drink more.
More drinking leads to diarrhea. Chickens might be more likely to pick fights and engage in cannibalism, too. At its most severe, heat stress can lead to seizures and death.
A hen that is simply hot may be seen panting lightly but otherwise will be acting normally, says Ashley Wright, a livestock area agent at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service.
A hen under light or moderate heat stress may pant more heavily or hold her wings away from her body and crouch slightly to aid in heat dissipation through the unfeathered areas under her wings.
She will, however, continue to act normally otherwise.
“These hens may not be in immediate danger, but it is a sign that further action should be taken to cool them and the rest of the flock to prevent heat exhaustion,” Wright says.
“A hen in danger of heat exhaustion will be panting heavily and holding her wings away from her body. She may have a pale wattles and comb; she may be lethargic, limp or unconscious.”
A chicken exhibiting these symptoms is in extreme danger of dying from heat stress and should be cooled quickly.
“Submerge her body up to her neck—not her head—in a bucket of cool—not icy—water and place her somewhere cool until she is completely recovered,” Wright says.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Chickens magazine.