EXPERT TIP: Keeping pasture-raised meat chickens healthy and happy in the summer heat
Eric Soderholm, Organic Transition Coordinator
Meat birds on pasture can be a beautiful thing. One on my favorite sites during daily livestock chores in the past has been watching how enthusiastically our chickens devoured the lush vegetation (and the many insects therein) on a new piece of ground. As glorious as the rewards in flavor can be, it is important to remember that raising meat chickens on pasture without proper advanced planning can be labor intensive and extremely frustrating. Profit margins are already very thin and taking the time to plan and get suggestions from other growers will help ensure the health and happiness of your birds from hatching to harvest. While I am certainly no expert on pastured meat bird production, the extreme heat we encountered in the past few summers has taught me a number of lessons on how to be a better chicken caretaker. Here are a few quick tips:
- If you order chicks in from a hatchery, they have spent the first day of their lives in a tiny box without provisions. Upon arrival, I dip each chick’s beak in water and tilt its head back to be sure that they get hydrated. Some farmers use sugar water and I have worked with others that add Bach’s Rescue Remedy to the mix for an immunity boost. It’s a good idea to have food and water set up in the brooder when you release them.
- Keep a thermometer in your brooder to monitor the temperature. The ideal environmental temperature for chicks in their first week is about 95° F and 5° lower each week thereafter. Chicks can self-regulate their body temperature if you provide them with an environment with warmer and cooler areas. Inside the main brooder area, it can be helpful to have an inner box made out of plywood, with no floor and raised up about four inches off the ground on 2×4 legs. This box can be outfitted with a heat lamp or two and insulated with foam board. This offers your chicks a warm place to congregate during cooler periods and an escape to the open area when temperatures rise.
- In the heat of the summer, proper ventilation in your brooder is a must. Opening windows or doors and turning on box fans can be a routine chore mid-morning when things start to heat up. However, be sure to restrict access of predators like hawks, cats, raccoons and snakes that could make an easy snack out of your little ones.
- Chicks are ready to meet the pasture soon after their first feathers come in, usually about 2-3 weeks. In the past I built chicken tractors about 2 feet tall, framed out of wood and enclosed with chicken wire. Half of the flat roof is covered with sheet metal or a tarp for shade and the other half is covered with chicken wire. However, when temperatures soar into the 90s for several weeks, I’ve experiences terribly high mortality rates in our flocks despite having access to lots of fresh water. I think that these structures, despite seeming fairly open-air, trap too much heat during summer warm spells. I have become a fan of livestock panel coops as a home-base and shade for chickens with an additional area to free range outside of the coop enclosed by electric poultry netting. Panel coops are still lightweight but are much taller and allow for better air circulation.
- If you slaughter your own chickens on-farm, summer heat can really take its toll and threaten the safety of your product. If you keep your birds in poultry crate before slaughter be sure that they are held in a shaded area with good ventilation. Try to avoid stacking crates on top of one another when it is really hot as this could lead to heat exhaustion. It is important to have an adequate amount of ice on hand to cool birds to the recommended 40° F after they have been slaughtered and eviscerated. When temperatures are around 80° F outside, expect to use approximately 1.5 lbs of ice per bird for cooling in your chill tank. This number can go up drastically at higher temperature. Ice can be expensive but it is well worth the assurance of a safe product. If you have the freezer space, you can make your own blocks of ice in sanitized buckets. Block ice melts much more slowly due to its smaller surface area to mass ratio.
> Have questions or your own suggestions about keeping meat chickens cool during the summer? Please don’t hesitate to share them. Contact Eric.