Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to Tell if Chickens are Hot

This is Sable, one of our very unhappy auracanas. With the temperature hitting 106F, and slated to be that way for much of the week, our lovely hens with extra plummage are struggling in a way that our black australorps, and barred rocks are not. On the flip side, these same hens with extra plummage are the ones who continue to lay in the coldest weather.

How can you spot a chicken struggling with the heat? Sable is doing a great job of demonstrating both the open beak for panting, as well as the "droopy" wings. Chickens will try to keep their wings held away from the body or droop them to try and increase air circulation. I wanted to make sure folks could view a picture of this, since the first time I saw a chicken doing this I thought perhaps they had a broken wing!

The next few posts will high light the methods I like to use to help our chicken flock cope with the heat. Keep in mind that we live in the temperate rainforest that swaths the Pacific Northwest, so not all of our solutions are a perfect fit for every region.

What to Do When it's Hot Out part 1

The photo above is one of our dear light brahmas, panting during the current heat wave. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are on severe weather alert, with daytime temperatures expected to reach 103F, and little night time cooling. Last night it was still 90F at 10pm, and 80F at midnight.

Many of the breeds we chose for our flock were selected in part because of their ability to produce eggs reliably during the colder winter months. Since high heat usually comprises only a small portion of our annual weather here in the Pacific Northwest, the task during a heat alert becomes providing as much comfort as we can for all our hens, but particularly those with extra plummage.

One of the first things we did was purchase additional large water dishes. I like to use ceramic crock pot dishes because they are the right height, and with their thick dish walls they keep the water temperature cooler longer. The additional dishes, as well as the food have been moved to a part of the chicken run that gets full day shade. What this will mean for the hens during the hottest part of the day is that they will be travelling into the coolest part of the yard to get water and food, instead of into what will turn into the hottest part of the yard.

Even so, in the shade the ambient temperature is at least 90F during the hottest part of the day!

At this point I have opened every venting hole in the coop that I can. During the day I also open the main coop door, and put an old screen door in front of it to allow maximum air flow in the coop. The chickens still want to lay their eggs inside the coop--some are smart enough to choose the coolest part of the coop, and others keep travelling to the west-facing part of the coop where the nesting boxes are.

Either way, we are doing everything we can to adapt our routine to try to keep the hens comfortable.

What to Do When it's Hot Out part 2

Poor panting Seiji Brown! All the auracanas, the buff orpingtons, and especially the light brahmas certainly struggle in the heat with their extra plummage. To further help the birds, we utilize a bit of water and "swamp cooler" technique.

Folks from the Southwest will be familiar with the use of coolers that run water over a blower in order to circulate cool air. We use the same principle in the chicken run to try to help cool the chickens down in the run.

I will set up a circular or misting sprinkler in the chicken run, and usually turn this on for a few minutes every 30 - 60 minutes. If there is any wind at all, this helps circuluate more cool air through out the run. It also cools the largest thermal mass the chickens have to deal with, which is simply the ground (more about this later).

One other variation of a home made swamp cooler for a chicken run is to take a wet cotton sheet, and throw this over one side of a fence for your chicken run. As the breeze blows through this, it will cool the air. Likewise, if placed strategically, you can also provide additional shade for your flock.

For us here in the Pacifc Northwest, these techniques work reasonably well. If you are in a region struggling with drought, or high humidity, these techniques may not work quite as well, or might require modification to reduce the amount of water you use.

What to Do When it's Hot Out part 3

Working with the concept of thermal mass is also one of the most important things we can do in terms of trying to help our hens be comfortable during high heat. In the above pic, you see the back portion of the coop, which is west facing. While we do have a bank of trees and high shrubs, the reality is that during the highest heat portion of the late afternoon, the sun will cook the area directly bordering the west facing portion of the cook. This heat will build up in the earth (and especially surrounding pavement), and later the stored heat will radiate back up.

With night time temperatures slated to be 80-90F for most of the night, the last thing we want to do is extend the duration of heat exposure the coop and the hens get.

Working with thermal mass is a great passive heating or cooling method for building architecture, but a nightmare if not properly dealt with for live stock. In this case, a back yard umbrella has been set up to provide a buffer which will keep the immediate ground around the coop from accumulating too much heat. While it's not fool proof, this small shade buffer will later radiate whatever accumulated cooling energy it has to offer. At dusk or just after I will run a sprinkler for a short time, which will further cool the ground and radiate this back.

The other thing I will do in the early evening after the hens retire to the coop, is I will throw open every available coop door, and stay near the back portion of the house. While I believe the pomeranian early warning system largely dissuades most raccoons from trying to take a chicken again, I think being cautious is wise in this case. Trying to let in as much of the meager cooling air as we can, helps the chickens better weather when I lock down the doors of the coop at midnight.

Keep in mind that most of these methods will work great for us in the Pacific Northwest. Take what can be useful for you in your region, and adapt it as best you can to keep your flock comfortable.

Friday, July 24, 2009

You Can Do this Too and Great Resource for Those in New England

Once a year I like to give praise where it is due, to the true goddess of urban chicken farming. Katy of The City Chicken remains my inspiration for keeping chickens in the city. Her site laid out in a step by step fashion how to begin, and she posted great pics of the incarnation of her various coops, flocks, etc. If you are a chicken enthusiast or someone cautiously researching what this urban chicken thing is all about, I highly recommend you visit her site.

She is the reason I believed we could do this!

For anyone who lives in New England, or has family or friends in Massachusets, I would like to recommend you visit the web site of Roy Nilson. He is a farmer and poultry enthusiast who makes and sells chicken tractors. He is also a draft horse teamster, and as someone in love with farming, he is fighting the good fight in the state of Massachusets. Please support him in his endeavors, including a farming school for local children, as well as many other activities.

"The Older Flock Isn't Laying Much Anymore"

Yeah right! Look at this gorgeous dozen!

That doesn't include the 2 extras that didn't fit in the carton, so clearly some of the hens are working overtime and laying double.

It seems as if some of the hens weren't laying due to molting and/or brooding behavior. First I was only receiving 1 egg per day, then 5, then 6, and today 14! I do expect that with the return of colder weather in the Fall and Winter, that likely this shift in temperature will have more of an effect on the older birds, than the younger ones. But for now, it's nice to see such lovely output.

Now I'm swimming in eggs, so if you are in the area and would like to purchase for $2 per dozen, let me know.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Changes to Our Flock

We first started our backyard flock when my daughter was in Kindergarten. She is now 10, so that provides some perspective of how long hens have been a part of our family. While we did bring in new chicks for 2 or 3 springs, for the most part, we are now living with hens who are 3-5 years of age.

As mentioned in another post, there have been many changes that made my life rather busy, and took me away from blogging about our flock, and some that have given us impetus to accept some attrition among the birds.
Some time ago I divorced. As part of this, my ex husband has "custody" of the truck that was used for hauling the straw. I had many, many extra bales on hand for quite some time, so only recently did this become an issue.

Likewise, our next door neighbor who allowed us to yard share moved. This meant the space for the chickens to roam was reduced. The reduction in space may not seem too important coming from the perspective of factory farming, but our goal was always to provide the flock with ample room to roam.

All of these things, as well as changes to our lives simply becoming busier have put me on a course with our beloved flock of ushering them into their old age, and allowing nature to take its course. At the peak, we had 2 dozen hens. Today we have 12. Deaths due to raccoons, old age, and illness have all taken a toll. My goal is to allow as many of the hens to run the normal course of their lives as I can, since they were so very generous with their egg laying for many years.

At this time I'm not completely sure how many laying hens we have left, as several are just finishing up a molt and one is coming out of a broody phase. I believe one or two are still laying, and in coming months I believe I'll have a better count on this. I've been told that 3-4 years is considered normal for egg production, and I believe that is true.

The Long Break from Blogging

Hello Everyone, and I'm glad to see people still visit here after the very long break from blogging. Since I last posted in 2006 life got even busier--full time work, daughter getting older and busier, and then a divorce all kept me quite occupied. I'm finding spots of breathing room here and there now, and want to get caught up to date with the flock.

Much has changed. That was the first year we began to see signs of aging amongst the flock, with our first couple of birds who passed from age-related causes. Racoons took several others. Much of my early postings were largely about how to get started with chickens, but I've yet to see a blog that covers the aging of a flock, particularly if the goal is to perhaps not continue to bring in new hens. From that perspective I'll do my best to get current, so that folks can understand the full life cycle.

Many times we bring home the chicks and are so excited--from their cute fluffy peeps to the first eggs they lay, it's an incredible journey keeping hens in the city. While I would dearly love to continue my flock indefinitely, because of where we live, and changes to our property sharing with our neighbor, at this time it is best for me to let this flock that we have go the full life cycle. The only change I see to that would be if we found ourselves in a different living situation, which would allow for a more private yard. I adored having 24 hens, but with a smaller family, I don't think I would again have a flock that size.

With that in mind--some of you may find yourselves in the same position, your flock has aged along with mine, or perhaps you are wondering what lies ahead for your older birds, as you continue to rotate in new chicks each year. We went through at least 2 seasons of bringing in new chicks, and I've written extensively about integrating multi-age flocks in past posts.

Thank you for continuing to visit the Happy Chickens blog, and I'll do my best to post about the life of our flock as it stands today.

A note to those who have posted comments--my apologies for not replying earlier. I have approved all pertinent and non-duplicate comments, and will respond to them this week. Many of you have questions about health issues, broodiness, and especially molting. I will try to touch on these topics, however coming at this from the context of an older flock, you would do well to check some of the older posts on this too.

In the coming month I will be trying to make the blog a bit more keyword or search utility friendly, so that folks needing information on broody hens, molting, diet, etc. will be able to find the posts more easily.