Summer Poultry Care:
Our British weather is famously changeable, more than able to freeze us then boil us within a close time frame, as it did this year in April, even in mid-summer we can be scorching one minute then soaked and shivering the next. That said, we generally still have to consider that May and into June is the start of warm weather associated poultry problems, reaching a head of steam in July through to August and September. There is no defined start and finish for any of these issues, but it is a good idea to be on alert and always take precautions, you will always hear me repeating the old saying ‘prevention is better than cure’, it is well applied to many possible poultry perils!
This time of year gets a bit crazy at Mantel Farm, it really is a case of trying to do everything and be everywhere at the same time. We have shows to attend, our courses get booked solid, our shop gets stacked, everyone wanting to know and have everything while the sun shines! Our two main areas being chicken keeping and beekeeping, interest is still ever growing, and I’m pleased to see plenty of new faces through the door.
Although our chicken pens are fully stocked this time of year, we make every effort to ensure none are ‘overstocked’. Fully stocked definitely does not mean ‘shoulder to shoulder’. It is essential that this is followed through to your back garden and smallholding chicken pens. I’ve said it before, and I’ll stress it again now (and at every opportunity I get!), overstocked pens bring nothing but misery, for your birds, and yourselves. I find time and time again, chicken house manufacturers overstating the living capacity of their products – they may make a nice chicken house, but that does not mean they have experience in keeping chickens! Just a couple of issues ago in my April article I covered in more detail the recommended space requirements, and possible consequences of too little space, to name just a few - boredom, feather pecking, increased risk of fleas, lice and mites, fighting over food & water, soiled or broken eggs, egg eating and constantly dirty underfoot. I’m bringing this all to your attention here to remind you that hot weather will significantly exaggerate these consequences! The end result will arrive faster, and be worse!
Chickens on a shady woodland edge - close to their origins
If your stocking density is right, then the two main things to ensure the wellbeing of your birds during the hottest times are water and shade. Water, and plenty of it - provide two drinkers where possible, extra is good and a credible insurance policy against one getting knocked over. I would always advise hanging your drinker if possible. This has many advantages, it can no longer be knocked over (minor spillages only), prevents dirt being scratched into it and if hung at the birds lower neck height can prevent unwanted visitors (vermin), getting a drink. (All the same applies to the feeder.) Next, provision of shade, unless your chicken set up is sited in partial shade, summer shading must be provided, particularly in a full sun position. This could be via a temporary tarpaulin, sheet of plywood or hazel/willow screening panel – this provides a nice mottled shade. Nothing is not an option! heat stress or worse can cause loss of egg production at the very least, loss of appetite, becoming lethargic, not drinking, becoming dehydrated, even death. In addition, it is possible for a chicken to suffer sunburn to any exposed areas of skin, particularly comb and wattles. Be particularly aware of this where molting chickens are concerned, providing good shade is a lot easier than applying sun cream daily to bald chickens!
I last covered the prospect of fleas and lice in poultry in my Aug’17 article, at that time in some detail. Although these two little crawlies can be a possibility all year round, they are more prevalent in the warmer months, and about time we had a recap here on what to look out for and what to do. Whilst chicken fleas live mainly in the bedding, just feeding off the chickens as and when, lice live directly on the birds, skin level, at the base of the feathers. Although generally not life-threatening, a serious unchecked infestation can make for a sad and depressed bird and no eggs. Although I have no direct experience of birds dying from such, I have heard stories of chickens that have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and that has led to them giving up the fight. I think any poultry keeper who allows things to get that bad (or even close) needs some education, or if they should know better, a stiff telling off!
Mottled shade - an ideal pen
Signs to keep an eye out for include any bird looking lethargic, maybe self-pecking, feather loss (one of many possibilities for feather loss), or just fidgeting a lot! Lice are 2-3mm long, a pale yellowish brown colour, and move very quickly, often going unnoticed in the early stages as they often disappear from view before you can even part the feathers to inspect! Check the hot areas of the body, the vent (their bottom), under the wings, the neck and belly, all directly at skin level. The lice lay their eggs in clusters and are fairly easy to spot, looking like a small, slightly flat, greyish cotton wool bud at the base of the feather. If just a few, it is possible to simply ‘pluck’ or cut out the affected feathers, suitably disposing of them away from your birds. In addition, or otherwise, treat with a suitable preventative / eradication powder. Our preferred treatment is ‘Diatomaceous earth’ (Diatom). This being a fine powder derived from a naturally occurring sedimentary rock, comprising fossilized remains of diatoms (single-celled, siliceous organisms)! The powder works by dehydrating the chicken fleas & lice. Sprinkle the powder liberally around the inside of your birds' housing, nesting boxes & perches. It can, and should be also applied to you birds at skin level where possible, concentrating in the main affected areas. You will find it much easier with a second person helping, one to rub back the feathers, whilst the other applies the powder. Make sure to hold on to the wings, or everyone gets powdered! All birds in the flock should be treated even if only one appears to be affected.
For more detailed information please take the time to refer back to and read my Aug’17 article.
You can go a long way to avoiding much of the above, both infestations and the manual handling just by making sure that your birds have regular access to a dust bath. Dust bathing is a birds’ natural way of keeping themselves ‘clean’, in good condition and ridding themselves of fleas, lice and other mites as best they can. In summer a good dust bath can also help with cooling. Ina reasonable sized run your birds will create their own ‘dust bowl’, whenever possible, add some diatom powder to this area for a good DIY treatment. During damp or prolonged wet weather it is preferable to provide a dust bath tray / box, either sheltered from the wet or placed in and out on alternate dry and wet days.
In our shop we sell purpose-made dust trays - they are of timber 16” x 16” (40cm x 40cm) and 4” (10cm) deep), or you might be up for making one, or have something suitable lying around that will do the job. We also sell a special ‘dust mix’ to go in your tray, or you can make your own, consisting of a mix of dry dusty earth, sand, fine sawdust & wood ash.
Dust bath tray and mix
The big one, of course, is our old favourite ‘the red spider mite’, this one loves the warmer times, breeding at a rate of knots, seemingly not there one day, and totally infested the next! My last thorough look at this nasty little beast was back in Sept’17, I will stress a great big ‘please’ take the time to refer back to that article and learn it, or frame a copy on the wall (I’m not suggesting it’s that good! But it is that important to get right). I consider the red mite as a killer of chickens can easily stand hypothetically shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Fox, in fact, in my opinion, it is easier to protect your birds from foxes.
So, time for a red mite re-cap...
The red spider mite is a (chicken) blood consuming external parasite that spends the majority of its time living in the cracks and crevices inside the chicken house, coming out at night to spend an hour or two on the chicken to feed on its blood, then returning to its hidey place to digest the blood meal, ready to repeat the process the following night. Red mite begin life just like a speck of dust, pale greyish green to olive in colour, only obtaining their namesake colour red once they have consumed their first blood meal.
What should you be looking out for? Well, there are signs, but often hard to spot – in time. Once the signs start showing it’s often too late, you are infested! One sign is ash / dust like markings around the edges of the cracks and crevices, often referred to as ‘salt n’ pepper’ makings, the only real daytime indicator that mite are present, what is this? – It is the red mites ‘poo’! (They come out to do it! they are actually tidy!) Another indicator is the state of your birds health, though realising that your birds are looking lethargic and pale faced – anaemic, can often be too late, at this stage the birds are often on the brink of death, having had the life literally sucked out of them! Indeed if they seem reluctant to go into their coup at night, trying to roost up outside, have a thought before you force them in – they are aware of a problem, and don’t want another night of being sucked dry.
Once again, a far better approach is ‘prevention’ (yes it’s still better than cure, particularly as far as red mite are concerned). When considering red mite, expect the worst, and treat accordingly.
I would recommend after each clean out (generally once a week, max fortnightly), a thorough spraying with an anti-red mite proprietary liquid. Our recommended product being Poultry Shield, we’ve used it for many years and trust it to do the job. It doesn’t contain poisons and can even be used in organic production systems. It is bio-degradable and has a low odour. It is important to spray the entire inside of the chicken house, concentrating efforts on perching rails (especially support sockets), nesting boxes and all corners. It is essential that you use enough liquid to penetrate all the cracks and crevices. If you are treating an infestation rather than spraying preventatively, then you haven’t used enough if it’s not dripping out the bottom!
Note: if using a jet wash, only do so after spraying the house and leaving to soak for an hour or so. Then spray again after jet washing out. In addition it is essential to ensure proper disposal of the cleaned out material – particularly when you know for definite that red mite are present in the poultry house. Either a well-sealed bin bag, bonfire, buried deep in your compost or taken off site to a tip are a few of your options. Once the house has had a chance to dry and is re set up with new clean dry bedding, then good advice is to liberally apply an anti-red mite powder all around the inside of the house, again, concentrating on perching rails - support sockets, nesting boxes and all corners. Again, my recommended powder for this is Diatom, the mites really can’t deal with it. Also I like the idea that is a natural and organic product as it will then be present in the house throughout, posing no threat to your birds.
To close this month I will leave you with my warm weather poultry care check list...
- Make sure pens are not over stocked – this will greatly exaggerate many of the following...
- Ensure there is plenty of drinking water, consider an additional drinker in the hotter times, and always hang up where possible to prevent drinkers being knocked over. Try to avoid drinkers hanging in full sun as water will heat up, they prefer cool water in hotter times. Consider adding ice cubes to the water during extreme heat.
- Provide adequate shade, remember that the sun moves throughout the day so the shade may have to move too or be located such to take account of this. For larger set ups consider that 27 birds cannot shelter from the sun under the shade of a single umbrella!
Too proud to shelter, but on guard whilst the hens sit in the shade
- Assess the ventilation of the indoor accommodation, is there enough - in some cases, is there any? make sure there is! Simply drilling a row of good-sized holes (say 20-30mm dia) will help, additional holes for summer use can always be blocked off for winter.
- What about the nest box? Your birds will still spend some time sitting in what will possibly be a very hot small space to lay their eggs – you may have to shade the whole thing.
- And the eggs... End of day collection is normally fine, but during the hottest days those eggs could have sat in a very hot nest box virtually ‘cooking’ all day. It’s a good idea to collect the eggs earlier, as soon after laying as possible. If this is not possible because you are working or out, use those eggs with caution or disregard to be safe.
- Consider carefully ‘bedtime’ for your birds – 5, 6 or even 7pm can often still be very hot if they are shut away for the night inside their house, particularly in full sun. Maybe let them have until dusk where possible, or if not consider shading the whole house.
- Apply treatments for red mite regularly, two weekly max (alternate weeks thorough), weekly is better!
- Check regularly for fleas and lice, ensure your birds have access to a dust bath, adding treatment powder to dust bath helps your birds to self-cleanse.
- During the hottest of days mist or shower spray the pen and house to create a cooling effect, though keep water away from the bedding as dampness can cause onset of composting, which produces heat, and possibly harmful mould spores.
- Watery fruit as a treat helps to keep them hydrated, such as sections of melon left large for them to peck at, it also keeps them occupied, oh so important!
Even fancy poultry love their summer fruit